Spanky Roberts: W.Va.'s First African-American Aviation Legend

George "Spanky" Roberts
(Courtesy Photo from West Virginia State University)

George "Spanky" Roberts (Courtesy Photo from West Virginia State University)

McLaughlin Air National Guard Base, Charleston, W.Va. --

If you search West Virginia military heritage on the internet, a long list of heroic names come up. Individuals such as Chuck Yeager, Woody Williams, and Jessica Lynch usually are the first to pop up, but one name you really have to dig to find is someone who broke barriers and paved a way for African-American Airmen.

Retired Col. George “Spanky” Roberts was born September 24, 1918 in the small rural town of London, WV. At an early age he and his family moved to Fairmont, WV where he graduated from Dunbar High at the age of 15, then returning South to attend West Virginia State College (WVSC). At only 18 years old, Spanky graduated with his Bachelor’s in Mechanical Arts.

In 1939, WVSC was one of only six historically black colleges across the nation selected to be granted permission to carry out the Civil Aeronautics Program, formerly at Wertz Field, where a chemical plant stands today. He entered into the program as soon as it opened and graduated in 1941 with the first class. Ten men and one woman soon traveled to Tuskegee Institute for further training.

In July of that year, Spanky entered the U.S. Army Air Corps (now U.S. Air Force) and became the first African-American Aviation Cadet, which was the first of his many firsts. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and was joined by another WVSC graduate from Ohio and four others in the first class of Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation force.

Spanky started his career as an instructor upon graduation from Tuskegee in advanced flight training school and married his college sweetheart, Edith. He was soon in for a big change. When the second World War started he had to put his pilot skills to the test and defend his country. He entered the war as the Commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, where he saw his first action in the deserts of North Africa. By the wars end, Spanky had more than 100 missions in four different continents.

After the war, Spanky became the Senior Air Corps Reserve Officer Training Corps Instructor at the Tuskegee Institute and would later become the Dean of the School of Military Science there. The George S. Roberts Squadron Arnold Air Society was named in his honor in 1952. Later that year, Spanky was ordered to report to Langley Air Force Base where he found out he would be serving as the first African-American to command a racially mixed unit in the Air Force. Following his stint at Langley, he went to Ft. Leavenworth and graduated with his Masters Degree.

After furthering his education, and another move, Spanky reported to Korea as a Colonel, commanding the 51st Air Base Group. In one last move, he came back to the U.S. to McClellan Air Force Base, where he would retire in 1968.

In Spanky’s illustrious, monumental career, he accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours and a list of awards to include the Air Force Commendation Medal with four oak leaf clusters and multiple Presidential Unit Citations.

Early in retirement he moved to Sacramento and served as a banker with Wells Fargo until his second retirement in 1982. He became very active in the community and church, working in programs to get meals to the elderly and sick, as well as the “Hipsters” which helped people with recent hip replacements get back to normal.

He was the first black aviation cadet who graduated in the first class, first commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, first commander to a racially mixed unit in the United States Air Force, first black student at U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and first black student to graduate with a Master’s Degree there.

George “Spanky” Roberts died March 8, 1984 of a heart attack in Sacramento. He left behind his wife, one son and three daughters. He was featured in news articles all across the country, even being featured in Times Magazine, and multiple West Virginia newspapers, as well as a bridge in Fairmont dedicated in his name.

He embodied every aspect of “Airmanship” in every way possible. He was more than just an instructor and supervisor to fellow Airmen, he led them and walked through it all with them. Years before Dr. King’s powerful speeches, Rosa Parks courageous actions and all that came with the civil rights movement, Spanky was silently fighting the same fight and we are a stronger Air Force because of him.

USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.