Lady RedTail: Mildred Hemmons Carter
Today, the first day of Black History Month, also marks the 71st anniversary of Mildred Hemmons Carter earning her pilot’s license, becoming the first black woman in Alabama to do so.
Wildly ambitious for a woman of her time, Hemmons Carter continued to make the best of denied opportunities, ensuring, whether purposefully or not, that she left behind a legacy that is source of inspiration for anyone who has ever been told they couldn’t become who they wanted to be.
Mildred Hemmons was born in Benson, Alabama in 1921 to a white businessman and a black postmistress. She spent most of her childhood in Alabama but eventually moved with her parents to North Carolina. There, she graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. After high school, she decided to return to Alabama to attend the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). She graduated at nineteen with a degree in business. Having seen so many young men enter into the newly founded flight program, Mildred realized she could do the same thing. She applied for the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). She was rejected. At nineteen she was too young to be accepted.
Undeterred, Mildred applied again the next year and was accepted. She graduated from the program and received her license on February 1, 1941.
Thirsty for more, Mildred decided to apply for the Advanced Program but found that women were not accepted into this higher level training. A few years after yet another rejection, Mildred learned that the military had created a new initiative to recruit female pilots with a program called Women’s Air Service Program (WASP). This time Mildred was denied admission because she was African American.
Instead of giving up flying completely, Mildred continued to pursue her interest in aviation, even giving private flying lessons. In 1942, she joined the Civil Air Patrol Squadron, although she never got a chance to patrol.
That same year she married a man who shared her passion for the sky. Herbert Carter, a fellow pilot, first noticed Mildred’s vivacious spirit in 1939 and was captivated by her. The two didn’t start dating until he discovered she too was enrolled in flight school.
Unable to fraternize while they were in the program, the two had many of their dates in the air. Often they would pick a time to meet over Lake Martin, 3,000 feet in the air. They couldn’t communicate with one another with radios and settled for waving and blowing kisses to one another. Mildred didn’t have access to the type of planes Herbert was able to fly and he would often play aerial leap frog, leaving clouds of dust in her windshield.
Mildred is reported as saying she wasn’t distracted by her future husband’s antics.
“I was the better pilot…I just didn’t fly the fastest aircraft.”
The two married in 1942, a month before Herbert became second lieutenant and a year before he was sent off to war. The couple went on to have three children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Even though she couldn’t fly with the Tuskegee airmen, she stayed in Tuskegee, dedicated to the mission. She became the first civilian to serve in the air project, bulldozing trees to clear the airfield path.
The recognition Mildred deserved as a pilot wouldn’t come until decades later. For the second time she received a letter from WASP. This time with more uplifting news.
Seventy years after she’d earned her license, Mildred was being recognized as a member of WASP. She even received a medal with an inscription reading: “The First Women in History to Fly America.”
By the end of last year Mildred’s health began to deteriorate. She passed away with her husband, who called himself her wingman, by her side.
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