Born and raised in Clinton Township, Vincent Ivor Mitchell was the son of Norman and Louisa (Applewhaite) Mitchell, both from British Guiana. Mitchell graduated from Mount Clemens High School in 1940 and trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield where he graduated in 1944.
In 1941, President Roosevelt ordered the creation of an all-black flight training program. Owing to racial segregation in the military, pilots were trained at a separate airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama, where they were soon dubbed “Tuskegee Airmen.”
These pilots not only fought overseas with distinction, but fought racial discrimination on the home front as well. During WWII, the civil rights struggle of African Americans led to a nationwide campaign called the “Double V” – victory at both home and abroad for the thousands who volunteered to fight for their country but were treated as second-class citizens at home.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s experience at Selfridge Air Field in 1943 proved to be no exception to discriminatory practices. Quarters were segregated, along with the base PX, cafeteria and movie theater. Members of the Women’s Army Corps were forbidden to speak to Tuskegee Airmen and escorted to and from duty by white military police. African American officers were denied membership to Luftberry Hall, Selfridge Field’s Officer’s Club, but were required to pay dues for its upkeep.
Tensions rose in May 1943 when an inebriated Col. Colman shot and seriously wounded an African American driver at Selfridge Field for no apparent reason. Colman was tried on 28 charges, found guilty, demoted to the rank of captain and banned from promotion for three years. The outcome of the trial incensed the public, both black and white.
With the outbreak of Detroit’s Belle Isle race riot in June 1943, President Roosevelt ordered 1,200 federal troops to restore order, and the African American airmen at Selfridge Field were ordered confined to base. The men found ways to combat their internment by partaking in daredevil flights during training; these included flying under Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge, flying around tall buildings in Detroit and buzzing the chicken farms in Mount Clemens.
In 1944, Tuskegee Airman Mitchell became a member of the 99th Pursuit Fighter Squadron that was later assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group during WWII. These pilots painted the tails of their aircraft red, and thus became known as the “Red Tails.”
2nd Lt. Mitchell received the Air Medal for Meritorious Achievement in Aerial Flight as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945 and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously in 2007. He died in 1980, leaving a wife Vivian and six children.
The Mitchell family’s service helped pave the way for African Americans in the military to serve their country on an equal basis. Mitchell’s uncle, Bertram H. Mitchell, served in the U.S. Navy as storekeeper in 1937, while his other uncle, Ernest L. Mitchell, chose to fight another way. A Detroit attorney, Ernest assisted Rep. George O’Brien with his election campaign in 1936 with the hopes of promoting racial equality in the military. O’Brien later authorized him to find suitable African American candidates to enter one of the service academies. Mitchell’s brother, Dr. Norman V. Mitchell Jr., served in the U.S. Navy, and his nephew, Mount Clemens High School graduate Dennis A. Boyd, served as a member of the Coast Guard. His photo was used in their advertisements in Ebony and Jet magazine in the 1970s.
Cynthia S. Donahue is a historian for Macomb County Facilities and Operations. This article was featured in Macomb Matters in February 2014.