Charles W. Dryden, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

By Watkins, Ralph | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Charles W. Dryden, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman


Watkins, Ralph, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Charles W. Dryden, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

A-Train is another addition to the growing body of published material on African Americans in aviation. Once viewed as a neglected area, there are now several works about African American pioneer aviators such as Eugene Jacques Bullard, Bessie Coleman, Charles Alfred Anderson, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and Daniel "Chappie" James.

Charles W. Dryden explains that his intention is to write an autobiography as a historical drama. A-Train is divided into two parts. The first section titled, "Before Desegregation" contains the account of Dryden's life from his birth in 1920 to 1948, the year President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 mandating desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. The second part, "After Desegregation" begins with his assignment to Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois, and ends with his retirement in 1962 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Dryden refers to his autobiography as a drama rather than a history because his intent is to provide a narrow portrait of his life. Unfortunately, in pursuing this goal he has produced an excessively limited autobiography. For example, more attention is given to preflight procedures than to the broad based struggle by African Americans and others to eliminate racial barriers to flight training.

The son of Jamaican parents who immigrated to the United States following WW I, Dryden grew up in a household that emphasized service to God, family, and the importance of a good education. As a child, Dryden's interest in flying seems always to have been there as if he had been "bit with the flying bug." His chance to learn to fly occurred in 1940 while attending New York's City College. There he participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Later, Dryden would be one of the early beneficiaries of the broad based push by civil rights organizations, politicians, and others to pass legislation that removed the exclusion of black Americans from pilot training for the U.S. Army Air Force. Here too, his autobiography is lacking in vital information about the people and organizations that worked to make this possible.

Although no stranger to racial discrimination, Dryden's journey to Tuskegee would be his first experience with formal, legally sanctioned, state supported racial segregation. The trip south did provide him with examples of the coping tactics used by African Americans to impede the dehumanizing effects of the South's system of Jim Crow. Race relations and the struggle against discrimination are major themes of this book.

Dryden asserts that the central dramatic event of the autobiography is the so-called "Tuskegee Experiment" where the ability of blacks to fly and maintain aircraft is tested. …

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