African American Studies


Robert Nesbitt (b. January 8, 1924) was a soldier in the Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II. He was born in Harlem, on 125th St. and Broadway, the son of an ex-military father from South Carolina and a mother from North Carolina. During this time, Harlem was fairly integrated: his neighbors included blacks as well as Irish, Jews, and Italians. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Corona in Queens, to an almost universally black neighborhood. Unlike many young African-American men, Nesbitt attended high school at Haarem high, where he developed a passion for mechanics and aviation. Yet when he graduated, there were no jobs to be found, especially for a young black man. Consequently, he enlisted in the Army, and was sent to Alabama to begin his training.

Nesbitt underwent basic training and also was trained as a mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen. He was part of the 100th squadron. Recruits came from all over the US, and they organized themselves in cliques—there were cliques from New York, Texas, California, etc. All the recruits were black, but many of the more specialized instructors were white. For instance, there were no black aviation instructors. Nesbitt completed his training in Alabama and then in Detroit, Michigan before flying to Italy in 1943. Nesbitt found the Europeans remarkably non-prejudicial towards blacks, and he maintains that racism was brought to the Europeans by white American servicemen. Indeed, he found that many of the myths constructed about the intolerance of Europeans were the creations of Americans who were trying to justify the unequal status quo. Nesbitt was not a fighter pilot, and so he never saw combat, but his work as a mechanic was instrumental in the Airmen’s storied success in Europe, as well as the subsequent improvement of the status of blacks in America.

Upon returning to the US, Nesbitt married and began working with the Transit Authority. Initially he lived in Queens, but his building was condemned in order to make room for York College. He thus moved to the Bronx (Co-Op City) in 1971. Nesbitt was surprised at the disarray that New York fell into during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Heroin and crack fractured neighborhoods and led to increased violent crime, and young people seemed to be more and more angry and disillusioned. Also, neighborhoods seemed to be even more sharply divided along ethnic and racial lines. Italians and Irish seemed to resent having blacks in their neighborhoods, and blacks in turn isolated themselves from whites.

Despite the changes that New York has undergone, Nesbitt feels that the integration movement has come a long way. Nowadays, black pilots, servicemen, and mechanics are common, and Nesbitt recognizes that he and the rest of the airmen did much to ensure that state of affairs.

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