Photo by Monica Smith
In a city with such a robust history, perhaps one of our greatest heroes remains largely unknown to many. Memorialized with a highway bearing his name and a permanent display at the Owensboro Regional Airport, the story of Milton T. Hall is one we should all know and remember.
The beginning of the story takes us back to 1939, when Hall moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Owensboro. The Second World War had begun abroad, but it would be another two years before the United States entered the fray in December 1941. Also in 1941, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, already a training ground for black civilian pilots, was chosen by the United States Army Air Forces as the site for training black pilots for military duty. Segregation was still the law of the land, and in addition to facing discrimination in employment and housing, black Americans could not even vote. But the U.S. military faced a potential shortage of pilots. And though enlisting black soldiers while denying them the right to vote was undeniably both hypocritical and exploitative, it also opened a door to a group of promising young aviators, eager to seize the opportunity and take to the skies. Among those men was Owensboro’s Milton T. Hall.
Naively, many of those in power believed that black individuals did not possess the intelligence or skill to serve as military pilots. But that did not deter Hall or others like him who sought not only to enlist, but to excel. And in spite of misguided preconceived notions of their abilities from those in the military, as well as an overtly racist climate in the nation as a whole, Hall and his fellow black pilots proved all their doubters wrong.
Though no one knew it at the time, these brave men would go on to become one of the most revered squadrons in U.S. military history – the Tuskegee Airmen. Tasked with escorting bombers to protect them from enemy planes, the Tuskegee Airmen piloted P-51 Mustangs during raids deep into enemy-occupied territory. With the tails of their planes painted red, they famously became known as the “Red Tails.” In addition to being a “Red Tail” pilot, Hall also trained numerous other Tuskegee Airmen.
Courageous men like Hall went from being completely shut out of the military to becoming decorated war heroes that not only played a crucial role in their country’s victory, but blazed a trail for black servicemembers, and left a proud legacy for all who followed in their footsteps.
Tragically, Second Lieutenant Milton T. Hall died in an accident at age 27 on September 18, 1947, when his AT-6 plane collided with another plane during a practice exercise. During his brief life, both his achievements and the barriers he overcame to reach them were truly remarkable. In our community, Hall also left an imprint through his involvement in the H.L. Neblett Community Center.
After his death, Hall’s sister, Emily Holloway, carried on his legacy by retelling her brother’s story to students and historians. In her own right, Holloway also made a lasting impact on Owensboro. Beginning in 1992, she led the Greenwood Cemetery Restoration Committee, which worked to restore the 16-acre cemetery that was founded by a group of African American men in 1906. Holloway was honored for her efforts in 1999 with a Mayor’s Award for Excellence. Because of their contributions to our city, individuals like Milton Hall and Emily Holloway are truly Owensboro’s unsung heroes.