World War II saw the break through of the African American Community into the world of weather. However, seventy years after the war, American-African Meteorologists still lag behind other STEM careers when it comes to membership.
Many of us know about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African American pilots to fight for our country during World War II. Like any pilot, though, weather is the most vital component to flying, besides the plane itself. To help brief the all-black crew of impending weather conditions, the Tuskegee Weather Detachment Unit was formed.
Gerald A. White, Jr., the author of Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen Black Meteorologists during World War II, notes that Meteorologists around the start of the World War II were few and far between. Only three American Universities had a Meteorology program in 1937 and they were money-losers. At the same time, though, the Army Air Corps, the first predecessor to the Air Force, was blossoming as it transitioned into the Army Air Forces. Membership rose from 26,000 in 1939 to 2,400,000 in 1944, a 9,200 percent jump.
The massive jump meant an demand on Meteorologists. In 1940, the Army only had 62 qualified weather forecasters. It was estimated that the Army Air Forces would need around 10,000 weather forecasters and observers to stay functional.
In 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Program was instituted in order to increase interest in the still fledgling military air program. These programs were put in place at six historically black colleges, which included he Tuskegee Institute, according to White.
Wallace P. Reed was the first black cadet of the program. Having a degree in mathematics, he was commissioned as the first black weather officer in February 1942. One month later, the Tuskegee Weather Detachment was created in Alabama, with Reed at the helm.
With just a short training program under his belt, Reed was tasked with creating and logging observations from a weather station. In addition, he had to train a staff with no weather background, working under no other officers.
The men of the Tuskegee Weather Detachment went under the same rigorous training as their white counterparts. Math, science and map drawing were critical, as well as the communication skills needed to effectively brief a pilot.
The unit was successful during the war. In his book, White states
"Despite the turbulence and constant training required, the Weather Detachment Unit completed its mission. At least thirteen (of the fourteen) enlisted men were awarded the AAF Weather Observer Badge, based on demonstrated performance and passing standardized tests from the Regional Control Office."
Their accomplishments were notable and broke many barriers within the military, as well as the weather community. Still, they only represented just 0.2 percent of all 6,200 meteorological cadets graduated. This was less than the 6.2 percentage of African Americans in the Army Air Forces as a whole.
Since the time of the Weather Detachment Unit, there has been a very slow progress in the number of African Americans in the Meteorological profession. However, recent years have shown tremendous potential.
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) reported that 1.9 percent of it's members as Meteorologists. The AMS, the largest professional and student Meteorologist group in the country, acts as a very good gauge of ethnicity within the weather community. Keith Seitter, Executive Director of the AMS notes
"The percentage of African American students in the AMS is a number comparable to those in other geosciences. Twenty years ago, the number was around one percent. So, it has been increasing, but slower than we would ideally like."
Under Seitter's leadership, the AMS has made strides to increase African American involvement. For example, specific scholarships (like the AMS Minority Scholarship) have been set aside for students who were good in math and science (the keys to a Meteorology degree) but maybe did not realize that Meteorology is something that they would like to pursue.
In addition, Seitter has attracted more minority individuals into leadership positions.
"You see real impact from those." Seitter said.
One of the people that has seen first hand the welcoming naturing of the AMS is Chris Alston, Global Procurement Manager for Kraft-Heinz.
Chris was the Chairmen for the Board of Private Sector Meteorologists in 2016. In addition, he is a part of the soon to be AMS Early Career Leadership Academy (ECLA).
"I am excited to be a part of the ECLA. This is having a focus on minority groups. It is a program to drive more attrition in the community" Alston noted.
Through his time as a Meteorologist, Alston has always felt the AMS to be welcoming and accepting. He knows that under-representation of African Americans in the geoscienes community has been an issue for a while. Perhaps even since the time of the Tuskagee airmen.
Sietter and Alston both feel that the steps taken by the AMS now will pay dividends in the future.
"I am encouraged by the number of African Americans the AMS Annual Conference (the largest AMS event). The current AMS student population is eight percent." Sietter happily observed.
"I see the number increasing in the future." Alston said.
As with any aspiring individual, having a mentor is always critical. The AMS is making gains and Alston is happy to be a part of it.
"If I can be a beacon of hope for others and help build the relationships, I am happy to help."