Mildred Louise Hemmons Carter was born on September 14, 1921, in Benson, Alabama. Her mother, Mamie Hemmons, was a businesswoman and postmaster in the small community and her father, Luther Hemmons, was foreman of a local sawmill.
As a child, Mildred moved several times, first to Tuskegee with her parents and later to Bricks Junior College in North Carolina. Her father worked for a short time as the school’s business manager before the college closed during the Great Depression and the family moved again. She finished high school at age 15 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where her mother worked as a college matron.
Her family moved again to Tuskegee, where her father worked at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital. She attended Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) at 15 and earned her business degree before 20. Mildred, then a seventeen-year-old student, also worked in the office that processed applications for Tuskegee’s branch of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP).
She attempted to apply for the program herself, but the program rejected her application because she hadn’t turned 18 yet. She would try again a year later and be accepted. Mildred Hemmons graduated with Tuskegee’s first class of CPTP trainees. Mildred received her private pilot’s certificate on February 1, 1941, making her the first female pilot in Alabama. Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson taught her to fly. He is a man known as the Father of Black Aviation. She flew a Piper J-3 Cub that she rented from Tuskegee and only accumulated 150 hours in the air.
Mildred Hemmons was the first civilian hired for the Tuskegee air project. Her first job: bulldoze trees to make way for the airfield. Determined to fly for her country, she applied to become a WASP, a member of the groundbreaking Women Airforce Service Pilots who ferried planes from factories to airfields. They rejected her application because she was a ‘coloured female pilot‘.
At the time, there were only about a hundred black licensed pilots in the nation and only a handful of black women. A few months later, the CPTP banned women; as war approached, the country needed only male pilots, or so the government decided.
Mildred met first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to the airfield to support the CPTP project publicly. The first lady’s message was unmistakable: Blacks were more than capable of flying. Her report helped persuade the president to allow black fliers included for combat. It was only black male fliers who the CPTP considered. The program thwarted Mildred’s desire to aid her country from the air at every turn.
She married Herbert Carter, a fellow student and pilot at Tuskegee, on August 21, 1942. The two would become known as the first couple of the Tuskegee Airmen. Her husband went to war in April 1942, while she remained in Tuskegee, working at the airfield. They had three children.
Racism may have cut down Mildred Carter’s dream of flying in the military, but it never stopped her ambitions. Though she never flew for the military, she mentored female African-American fighter pilots, never to stop dreaming. She piloted planes until 1985 when a broken hip knocked her out of commission at 64.
She was declared a member of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) by the US government, in February 2011, 70 years after earning her pilot’s license. She was also given a medal with the inscription: “The First Women in History to Fly America.” Mildred Carter was honored for her aviation exploits at the Tuskegee Human and Multicultural Center.
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