Question: How hard is it to find 1,720 acres of history in Tallahassee? It’s pretty hard if what you’re looking for is the Dale Mabry Air Field.
Information about Dale Mabry Field is sparse and scattered across Florida’s capital. There are, of course, the biographical details everyone who knows about the city’s first airport seems to know. It was built in 1929 and named for a local pilot who died in a crash earlier that decade. And at the start of World War II, the government extended and converted Dale Mabry Field to support the war.
“Dale Mabry Field is part of a network, hundreds, really, over a thousand that are temporary air bases for World War II to train pilots,” says Florida State University historian Kurt Piehler.
He oversees FSU's Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. Piehler says the field helped train thousands of pilots. In fact, in 1942, some of the famed African-American pilot corps, the Tuskegee Airmen, trained in advanced gunnery at Dale Mabry Field. James Ford, the city’s first African-American mayor, remembers being inspired as a young man by the airmen’s visits to Tallahassee. He spoke to WFSU-TV in 2007 for the Florida War Diaries project.
“They trained here, and I had several friends who were in the Tuskegee Airmen,” Ford says. “I had the opportunity to go out there and look at them when they would come in and practice.”
But they weren’t greeted well when they got here, says local doctor and Tuskegee Airmen expert Alan Brickler.
“This was probably not one of our better moments in history,” Brickler says. “When they came here and landed at Dale Mabry Field, they were placed in prison barracks rather than given equal station according to their rank.”
Here’s where the record gets thin. Florida’s Heritage Trail website devotes exactly one sentence to the airmen’s training in Tallahassee. Local historians disagree on how long they stayed. Brickler cites the memoirs of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who commanded the airmen, as his source for their experience in Florida’s capital. Brickler says he believes the airmen received slightly better treatment on later trips to Tallahassee.
“They did make it more than one time and presumably their experiences were not as horrendous from that point on but they did recognize that those were an unpleasant set of circumstances,” he says.
FSU’s Piehler says the fight for recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen was as much about self-determination as it was about winning the war. He says many in the military establishment wanted them to fail.
“In looking at the Tuskegee Airmen, why the Tuskegee Airmen came into being, part of it is the need for manpower but also the military was quite stubborn at times, about recognizing the importance of African-Americans to the war effort,” Piehler says.
Former Tallahassee Mayor James Ford says African-Americans shared in the airmen’s triumphs and strove for greater successes after these first black men took flight.
“There was a certain amount of pride. It was a black flying group and there just was nothing like that. It was an unheard of thing for a black to aspire to be,” Ford says.
A historical marker stands outside Tallahassee Community College off West Pensacola Street where the airfield’s runway ended. It holds, probably, the last of the memory of that portion of history that has been buried under the buildings that now make up TCC. Legend tells of a 1940's-era building that might have housed the airmen. But where it is exactly, no one seems to know.