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Washington Red Tails: The history of a possible name for D.C.'s NFL team

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The Washington Red Tails.

Sounds a little odd, mainly because we’re so accustomed to the team’s previous name. But “Red Tails” is one of the most popular names among the many under consideration for the Washington Football Team … and it has the best backstory, hands down.

The history of the Red Tails

The Red Tails were the nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen, a cadre of pilots based out of Tuskegee, Alabama, who achieved distinction in World War II. Their name came from the stripe of red paint along the planes’ tails, used for easy identification while in the air. Originally known as “the red-tailed angels” for their ability to protect bombers on dangerous flights over enemy territory, their handle was shortened to “Red Tails,” and it stuck.

Prior to 1940, Blacks were prohibited from flying for the U.S. military. The prevailing mindset at the time was that Blacks lacked the qualities to be pilots. Pressure from civil rights organizations and Black-owned media forced the creation of a special training program for Blacks in Tuskegee.

“Public pressure from the NAACP, civil rights groups, and the Black press pushed this idea of a ‘Double Victory,’ ” said J. Todd Moye, a professor of American history at the University of North Texas and the author of “Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.” “They took up this crusade, to win victory over Naziism in Germany and victory over Jim Crow at home.”

(Courtesy Jeff Berlin)
(Courtesy Jeff Berlin)

More than 16,000 Black men and women worked in connection with the Tuskegee air effort, from pilots to flight instructors to mechanics to nurses to weather forecasters. They formed the U.S. Air Force’s 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group.

Over the course of five years during World War II, Tuskegee Army Air Field graduated 932 pilots. Of that total, 355 were deployed overseas and saw action in Europe. The group’s first flying unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron, was deployed to North Africa and later to Sicily and Italy’s mainland before taking part in raids on Germany and other Central European locations. The airmen, most often flying P-51 Mustangs, drew praise from all-white crews for their work as bomber escorts, protecting bombers on missions deep into Germany.

“It had been the official policy of the Army that you couldn’t teach African Americans to fly,” Moye said. “In proving that they could be successful, [the Red Tails] proved something very important: They proved that it was inefficient and a waste of money, as well as immoral and a violation of American principles, to segregate the military like that.”

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Members of the Tuskegee bomber units also participated in the Freeman Field Mutiny of April 1945. Black officers attempted to enter a segregated officers’ club at Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana, in April 1945. Army Air Corps regulations at the time barred segregated facilities; the officers’ act of civil disobedience was cited as a tipping point for President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the entire U.S. military.

In the decades following the war, Tuskegee veterans created Tuskegee Airmen Inc. as a way to promote their own efforts and educate the public about the Red Tails’ role in World War II and, in turn, the civil rights movement. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, and a 2012 movie titled “Red Tails” helped raise the group’s profile even further.

“This was the first chapter of the modern civil rights movement,” Moye said. “Forcing the War Department to create a unit for African Americans in the first place set the country down the road toward full equality and full opportunity for African Americans in all walks of life.”

Aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama in 1941. (Courtesy Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama)
Aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, in 1941. (Courtesy Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama)

Will the ‘Red Tails’ join the NFL?

Could the Washington team take on the name “Red Tails”? It’s a popular choice; in a poll of more than 92,000 Yahoo Sports readers, “Red Tails” was the favorite with 28 percent of the vote. In 2013, D.C. Council member David Grosso introduced a measure calling for the name to be changed to the “Red Tails.”

Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins is also a fan:

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Some enterprising fans have even taken to creating their own logos for the speculative Washington Red Tails:

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One hurdle for Washington to adopt the “Red Tails” name? “Red Tails” (also “Redtails”) is one of the many hypothetical team names trademarked ahead of time by an Alexandria, Virginia man. Getting that name means jumping through some trademark hoops, at the very least.

There’s a larger argument against using the name, and it stems from Washington’s own history of appropriation. Boiling “Red Tails” down to a mascot could minimize the contributions of the men and women who gave that name meaning.

“I am not sure they are worthy of the Red Tail name,” Lt. Col. James Harvey, at 97 one of the last surviving Red Tails, told Time magazine. “They don’t win that many games plus a lot of the players have a … poor attitude. But, it is not my call. Just the way I feel at this point in time.”

“I don’t think Dan Snyder has done much to earn the right to use the name,” Moye said. “There are also questions of whether naming a team after a group of real people like this is appropriate. I don’t want to see them used as mascots, but I’ll defer to Tuskegee Airmen Inc.”

Still, TAI hopes there’s a path forward for the use of the Red Tails name, and has expressed support for the idea. “The contributions made by the Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen affected all Americans,” TAI spokesman Rick Sinkfield said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “If the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise chooses to rename themselves as the Washington Red Tails, it would honor the Tuskegee Airmen legacy and be symbolic for all of America.”

The group added that it “would be honored and pleased to work with the organization during and after the process should this name be adopted.”

To date, the team has not reached out to TAI about the use of the “Red Tails” name.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.