For much of his adult life, Granville Coggs was known as “Dr. Coggs,” a respected radiologist who specialized in the detection of breast cancer. But in his later years, Coggs preferred to introduce himself with a title that referenced his pioneering contributions to the Second World War: “Granville Coggs, Tuskegee Airman.”
At a time when racial segregation was enforced by law in the United States, the Tuskegee Airmen served as the first black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Cogs, who died on Tuesday, May 7, at the age of 93, was one of the few Tuskegee Airmen still alive in 2019.
Coggs was born in 1925 in Arkansas, the grandson of slaves, according to an obituary in the San Antonio Express-News. His parents stressed the importance of education as a means of excelling amid a climate of intense racism, and after graduating from high school, Coggs enrolled at Howard University. He was still attending school when, in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and volunteered with the Black Army Air Corps.
At the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, Coggs trained as a bomber pilot, bombardier and gunner. His training finished around the time that WWII drew to a close, so he did not fly in an active combat zone. But “he was a trained aviator and ready to do a lot of damage,” Rick Sinkfield, president of the San Antonio chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., tells Garrett Brnger of ABC affiliate KSAT.
Whether they excelled in training or on the battlefield, the Tuskegee Airmen played a vital role in dismantling racist ideas that permeated the U.S. military in the era of Jim Crow. At the time, according to History, much of white America held the racist belief that African Americans were incapable of learning to operate advanced aircraft. Prior to 1940, they had been barred from flying for the U.S. military.
After groups like the NAACP began lobbying for the inclusion of African Americans in the Air Corps, the White House of President Franklin Roosevelt finally announced a training program for black pilots. Around 1,000 pilots and 14,000 “navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff” were ultimately trained at Tuskegee, History writes. They served in Europe and allied-occupied North Africa, sometimes alongside white pilots. Over the course of two years, the Tuskegee Airmen conducted 15,000 individual “sorties,” or mission dispatches.
Three years after the conclusion of WWII, President Harry Truman signed an executive order mandating the desegregation of the Armed Forces. There was considerable resistance to the measure, but by the Korean War, most of the military was integrated.
Coggs served in the Air Corps until 1946. He subsequently obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, then went on to study at Harvard Medical School. In 1959, he became the first African American staff physician at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. In the 1980s, according to the San Antonio Express-News, Coggs established the San Antonio Breast Evaluation Center, which served as a model for other breast cancer diagnostic facilities across the U.S. He was also among the approximately 300 Tuskegee Airmen who were at the ceremony when President George W. Bush awarded the airmen the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
In his old age, Coggs energetically pursued an array of hobbies and interests: he competed as a track athlete in the Senior Olympics, co-wrote a memoir and even tried to audition for American Idol; at 81, he was told he exceeded the age limit by 53 years.
“He was an extraordinary man and an exceptional role model,” his daughter, Anita Coggs Rowell, tells Vincent T. Davis of My San Antonio. “[N]ot just [for] our family, our community, but for the country, history and African American history.”
Editor's note, May 20, 2019: This piece has been updated to clarify the events of the 2007 Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. That Congressional Gold Medal is currently at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.