Early African American Aviators

Photo Essay

Willa Brown

African Americans have always been an integral part of the history of aviation. The grace, excitement, and glamour of flight were no doubt attractive to the many African American aviators who took to the skies in the early part of the twentieth century, but aviation also seemed to present new opportunities and a new way forward in a country still beset by the terrible injustices of Jim Crow. While the achievements of, say, the Tuskegee Airmen may be fairly well known, however, the biographies of many of the earliest African American aviation pioneers are often familiar only to historians and aviation enthusiasts.

The current photo essay, composed by scholar Philip S. Hart in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, brings the lives of ten African American aviation pioneers into vivid relief. From the earliest licensed African American pilot, Emory Malick, to the saxophone-playing parachutist Hubert Julian, to the globetrotting Bessie Coleman, this essay touches on the full spectrum of early African American aviation. Hart's enthusiasm for the subject is clearly evident, as is his deeply-felt connection to the adventurers whose lives he chronicles.

Philip S. Hart, Ph.D. is an honors graduate from the University of Colorado who was inducted into the University's Distinguished Alumni Gallery in 1995. He earned his graduate degrees in sociology from Michigan State University. Hart is the author of three books about America's first black aviators, and is the producer of a PBS film on the same topic. He has been an advisor to the Smithsonian Institution's Black Wings exhibit since 1982.

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