Photo Essay - Early African American Aviators

Emory MalickEmory Malick's official Curtiss Aviation School Class of 1912 portrait. Courtesy of Mary Groce and the Malick Family Collection.

EMORY MALICK: THE FORGOTTEN FIRST Emory Malick's story is one of the mysteries of mixed racial heritage in America. The Malick mystery was not revealed until 2004, when Pennsylvania native Mary Groce was rummaging through a box of family papers with her cousin Aileen and found a sheet of old letterhead for an "Emory C. Malick, Licensee: Pilot No. 105." Included on the letterhead was a photograph of a handsome young man wearing his cap backward and sitting in a Curtiss pusher-type airplane.

Groce handed the letterhead to her cousin. "Have you ever seen this photo of our great-uncle Emory?" she asked. She recalls her cousin's surprise: "Aileen looked at the paper and replied, "'Oh my god. He's black'" (Maksel, 2011).

Since that day in 2004, Mary Groce has been trying to find more about her great-uncle's story. She says she was never told about Malick or her mixed racial heritage. Perhaps due to the secrecy surrounding this family's particular history, Malick's historic accomplishment escaped the comprehensive research of the Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum curators and other aviation historians working to piece together the stories of America's first black aviators. The good news is that even though the family secret was kept for nearly a century, the family did preserve a considerable number of photographs and other material about Malick (Personal correspondence with Mary Groce).

Groce's family secret may also explain in part why Malick's historical significance had been lost for nearly one hundred years. Malick studied at the Curtiss Aviation School on North Island, San Diego, and received his pilot's license in March 1912. He was 31 years old, making him not only the first known African American pilot, but also the first black person to earn a pilot's license in the United States. His license was granted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), based in France. Why was Malick able to earn his pilot's license in San Diego in 1912, while both Eugene Bullard in 1917 and Bessie Coleman in 1921 were forced to go to France to become licensed pilots? Was it due to Malick's friendship with influential aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss? Perhaps Malick was passing for white, as there is evidence that census information described him as being white or mulatto.

Even with these recent findings, there remains a great deal about Malick that is unknown. Mary Groce's research has shown that before 1910 Malick built and flew his own gliders near the Susquehanna River. By 1914, according to reports in Pennsylvania's Selinsgrove Times, Malick had purchased a biplane which he flew over the town "to the wonderment of all, [...](F)actories temporarily shut down to witness the novelty." (Maksel, 2011)

Malick later moved to Philadelphia where he did aerial photography for the Aero Service Corporation and Dallin Air Surveys. He also worked for the Flying Dutchman Air Service, which offered flight instruction, aerial photography, and passenger flights, and he may have been a co-owner of the Flying Dutchman Air Service, according to Mary Groce. Records show that Malick earned a transport pilot's license from the U.S. Government in 1927, which would have also been a first for a black pilot.

Malick also participated in air shows. It was on a windy and cold March day in 1928 at an air show in Camden, New Jersey that Malick took up two passengers for a quick hop in his Waco three-seater. They were barely off the ground when the engine died. Malick banked to the left to avoid the spectators below, but the wind caught the aircraft and the Waco crashed. Malick's two passengers were injured.

Later that year Malick crashed again–the cause is not known–this time injuring himself and killing his passenger. Though he never flew again, Malick remained interested in aviation. At a flying banquet he displayed the 60-horsepower engine that powered his 1914 flight over the town. But the pioneer pilot refused all opportunities to go flying. Documents at the Snyder County Historical Society say that in the 1930s when local pilots offered to take Malick flying he would reply, "I had my fun, and now I'm done." (Maksel, 2011)

In December 1958 when he was 77 years old, Malick slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk in Philadelphia. He died in the hospital. With no identification on him, his body lay unclaimed in the morgue for more than a month until his identity could be established.

As more is learned about Malick over the period from 1912 to 1928, it will be interesting to determine whether there was any contact between Malick and other black aviation pioneers such as Eugene Bullard, Bessie Coleman, William J. Powell, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, and James Herman Banning. It will also be interesting to determine whether the black press, including newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, were aware of Malick, as these newspapers regularly covered other black aviators during this period.

Since the September 1982 opening of the Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum "Black Wings" exhibit, we have learned a great deal about America's first black aviators. Emory C. Malick can now be recognized for his contributions to American aviation history, but much more remains to be learned. One of the joys of researching America's first black pilots is that another story like Malick's may be lurking around the corner.

Eugene BullardEugene Bullard in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6283.


Eugene Jacques Bullard was born on 9 October 1894 in Columbus, Georgia. Shaken by the near lynching of his father in 1903 and seeking adventure in the world beyond Columbus, Bullard ran away from home in 1906. On 4 March 1912, after joining a group of gypsies and spending a few years tending horses, Bullard stowed away on a German merchant ship, the Marta Russ, which departed Norfolk, Virginia, bound for Aberdeen, Scotland. From 1912 to 1914, Bullard performed in a vaudeville troupe and earned money as a prizefighter in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. He boxed in a match in Paris for the first time in November 1913.

At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Bullard joined the French army, serving in the Moroccan Division of the 170th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Swallows of Death." This was the unit from which Bullard took the name "The Black Swallow of Death." Bullard rose to the rank of corporal and for his bravery as an infantryman in combat, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre and other decorations.

During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, Bullard was seriously wounded, one of 460,000 casualties that France suffered. While Bullard was recuperating, he accepted an offer to join the French air force as a gunner/observer, but when he reported to gunnery school, he obtained permission to become a pilot. After completing flight training, Bullard joined the 200 other Americans in the Lafayette Flying Corps. He flew combat missions from August 1917 to November 1917 and distinguished himself in aerial combat as he had done on the ground. He was officially credited with shooting down a German aircraft.

At one point, unfortunately, Bullard got into an argument with a French officer, and this disagreement led to Bullard being removed from the French air force. He then returned to his infantry regiment and performed non-combat duties for the remainder of the war.

Thus, in 1917 Bullard became the first African American combat pilot. He was not flying for his home country, the United States, but rather for France, the nation his father many years before had told him was friendlier to people of his race. Bullard was flying Caudron G-3, Caudron G-4, SPAD, and Nieuport aircraft, all with the famed Lafayette Escadrille, the crack French combat flight team. This was well before the United States had achieved the aviation combat sophistication already reached by both France and Germany.

World War I ended in 1918. Between World War I and World War II, Bullard remained in France, where he managed and owned nightclubs in the Montmartre section of Paris. Bullard emerged as a leading personality among such African American entertainers as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. In 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Straumann, the daughter of a wealthy white Parisian family, something he would not have been able to do in the Jim Crow United States. The couple had two daughters before separating in 1931. In the early days of World War II, when France was again at war with Germany, Bullard was an important member of the French Resistance. This group of people secretly fought against Germany, which was attempting to occupy France. Resistance members were spies and destroyed German equipment and supplies (Hart, 2005). When Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, Bullard fled with his two daughters to New York City, where he lived until his death on 13 October 1961 (Hart, 2005). Eugene Bullard was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire's uniform in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, New York. On 14 September 1994, the secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him to the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

Bessie ColemanBessie Coleman stands with a Curtiss JN-4, circa 1924. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number WEB11673-2010.


Bessie Coleman was born to George and Susan Coleman on 26 January 1892. Coleman and her several brothers and sisters first lived in Atlanta, Texas before moving to the mostly African American section of Waxahachie, Texas two years later.

By 1910, after caring for her younger siblings and toiling in the cotton fields, Coleman had saved enough money to move to Oklahoma and enroll in Langston Industrial College in Langston, Oklahoma. This college for African Americans had as its goal the education of men and women so that they could excel in jobs in farming, mechanics, and industry (Hart, 2005). It was at Langston College that Coleman first learned of Harriet Quimby, a white American woman who had earned a pilot's license. However, in 1911 Coleman had to drop out of school due to a lack of money.

Unwilling to remain in Waxahachie, Coleman was encouraged by her brother Walter to move to Chicago to join him and John. She was able to move to Chicago in 1915 after working as a maid to earn enough money to do so. It was while working as a maid in 1912 that Coleman came across a newspaper article that told of Harriet Quimby's death in a plane crash in Massachusetts. She had not thought about Quimby since she left Langston College, but the news sparked Coleman's interest in the idea of flying a plane.

Soon after making her way north to Chicago, Coleman landed a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop on Chicago's south side. It was at this barber shop that she met Robert S. Abbott in 1920. Abbott was the publisher of the Chicago Defender, one of the leading African American-owned newspapers in America. Coleman soon confided in him about her interest in flying. Once convinced that this young woman was serious, Abbott suggested that she learn French and travel to France to learn to fly. He knew that no flight school in the United States would accept her because of her race and gender, and that the French were more open-minded than Americans in matters of racial and gender equality.

With Abbott's help, and her personal savings, Coleman took the train to New York City. On 20 November 1920 she boarded the SS Imparator and sailed for France. In December 1920, Coleman began taking flying lessons at the Ecole d'Aviation des Frères Caudron at Le Crotoy, in northwestern France near the English Channel. She flew a French Nieuport 80 biplane, which had become popular during World War I. Between December 1920 and June 1921 she worked diligently, both on her French and her flying. By June she had finished her training and was ready to apply for a pilot's license. She passed her tests on the first try. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a nongovernmental organization that oversees air sports worldwide, issued her pilot's license on 15 June 1921.

Coleman sent a letter to Robert Abbott informing him of her accomplishment. She had every reason to feel proud: At the age of 29 she had become the first African American woman in the world to earn a pilot's license. Coleman then returned to Paris from Le Crotoy to take more flying lessons at nearby Le Bourget Field. Over the next few months she continued her flying lessons while learning more about Paris. Unlike in Chicago, she was able to move freely about the city with no restrictions due to her race.

In September 1921 she left Cherbourg, France on the SS Manchurian. She was a different person than the young woman who had arrived in France ten months earlier. With her pilot's license in hand, she set her sights on New York City, where she was greeted by crowds of reporters–both black and white–when the Manchurian docked in late September. The reporters came from the New York Tribune, the Aerial Age Weekly, the Air Service News, and other newspapers. Robert Abbott had been right: An African American woman pilot was big news. Front page stories appeared in the Chicago Defender and in other African American-owned newspapers across the country.

The next year, Coleman set out on a barnstorming tour that would spread the aviation gospel while at the same time allowing her to raise funds to start her own flying school. Coleman left wintry Chicago in January 1923 for California. She first headed to Oakland to set up a deal with Coast Tire and Rubber Company. Under the terms of the deal she would represent Coast Tire at public events. She would also put the company logo on the planes she flew. Several white pilots had similar deals, but Coleman was the first African American pilot to make such an agreement with a major corporation. Coleman then headed to Los Angeles, where she used money from her Coast Tire deal to purchase a used Curtiss JN-4 for $400. Coleman proceeded to set up an exhibition at Rogers Field in Los Angeles, but her backers pulled out at the last minute and Coast Tire refused to fill the void. Coleman scrambled to set up another exhibition, which she was able to perform on 4 February 1923 at Palomar Park in Los Angeles. Thousands gathered to see her as the sole attraction, but after taking off from nearby Santa Monica where her plane had been parked, Coleman had her first crash when the Jenny's motor stalled. Luckily, she was flying the Jenny at only 300 feet at the time, and she emerged from the crash with a broken leg and several fractured ribs.

Licking her wounds, Coleman returned to Chicago to heal. By 1925 she was ready to travel once again. She headed back home to Texas and in Houston on 9 May 1925 she gave her first lecture on flying, accompanied by films of her flights. Five weeks later, Coleman performed in a borrowed plane at the Houston Juneteenth air show, where she enthralled both the stands full of white spectators and the African American viewers forced to stand on a dirt surface.

With her successful return to Texas behind her, Coleman headed on to Florida still intent on raising funds for a school. It was in Jacksonville, Florida on 30 April 1926 that Coleman died in another crash while preparing for an air show in that city. A memorial service was held in Jacksonville, and her body was then sent by train to Chicago. For the funeral service at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church in May 1926, nearly fifteen hundred family members, friends, and fans crowded the pews. Outside, thousands more, including William J. Powell, milled about, unable to get in.

Bessie Coleman had arrived in Chicago in 1915 from Texas as an unknown cotton picker. She was honored eleven years later as a shining light the world over.

William J. PowellWilliam J. Powell (right), c. 1931. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number NASM 9A00624.


William J. Powell was born in Henderson, Kentucky, in 1897, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was eight years old. When Powell was 16, he graduated from Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School. He then applied to the engineering school at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

Edna Gayle, Powell's sister, in an interview with Philip Hart in 1983, recalled that the university accepted Powell without difficulty. But the dean of the engineering school told Powell that in order to succeed he would have to work harder than the white students.

Powell stayed in school for several years. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Powell enlisted in officer training school in Chillicothe, Ohio in a segregated unit. He left officer's school as a first lieutenant and was sent to fight in Europe. On the last day of his tour of duty, the black troops in Powell's unit were ordered to the front lines, and Powell was wounded in an enemy gas attack.

Powell came back to the United States to recover. When he returned to better health he opened an automobile service station in Chicago. Eventually, Powell opened four service stations and a large garage that did automobile repairs.

In 1926 Powell traveled to Paris, France for an American Legion convention. In Paris, at Le Bourget Airfield, Powell, along with his church pastor, took his first exhilarating ride in an airplane.

Powell returned to Chicago very excited about aviation. He tried to locate a flight school that would accept him, but he could not find a school that would take a black student. After much difficulty, Powell was accepted at a flight school in Los Angeles, California. The owners of the school said they did not care what race Powell was, as long as he had the necessary $1,000 for tuition.

Powell decided to sell his businesses in Chicago and move to Los Angeles. A move to a dryer climate such as California had been recommended by his doctor to aid his continuing recovery from the wartime gassing.

Los Angeles and its growing black population suited Powell. After learning to fly, Powell began to dream about organizing an all-black flight school in honor of Bessie Coleman. He recognized that aviation was a new technology with the potential to change society, and was anxious for black Americans to enter this new field on the ground floor–to become pilots, mechanics, flight school owners, and airplane designers.

In 1929 Powell helped found the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, the first all-black flight school in the world. Powell and three other businessmen hoped to form more than 100 black aero clubs in different cities across the country.

The Bessie Coleman Aero Club sponsored the first all-black air show in September 1931. This show attracted so much attention that Los Angeles city officials asked the club to put on a second exhibition as a benefit for the city's unemployment fund. The second all-black air show was held on 6 December 1931 at Eastside Airport in Los Angeles. This show featured the "Black Eagle," Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a well-known aviator from New York City, as well as big band music from Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club orchestra. In addition, the Five Blackbirds made their debut, which marked the first time five black pilots flew in aerobatic formation.

Powell and other black aviators saw the airplane not only as a method of transportation but also as a force for social change. They felt that if blacks could show they were capable pilots, segregation and discrimination against the black population would decrease. Powell expressed his ideas in a 1934 book, Black Wings, and a 1935 film, Unemployment, the Negro, and Aviation. Powell also published a newsletter called the "Craftsman Aero News," aimed at promoting aviation in the black community.

William J. Powell, with his resources, business acumen, and promotional abilities, clearly saw that aviation was to become a major industry. This visionary pioneer passed away in 1942, and lived long enough to see cross-country flights by black pilots and the enactment of the Tuskegee Institute program that would produce black combat pilots.

James Herman BanningJames Herman Banning, seated in his biplane, circa 1929. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.


James Herman Banning was born in El Reno, Oklahoma on 5 November 1900. Banning was a soft-spoken child with an interest in both reading and mathematics, and he enjoyed tinkering with farm machinery, even at an early age.

In the fall of 1916, he traveled east to attend Faver High School in Guthrie, Oklahoma. There he continued to study mathematics, and developed his ability to repair automobiles and farm equipment. Banning graduated from high school in the spring of 1918, and his good grades suggested that he might be ready for college. However, he did not go directly to college once he graduated high school, as he spent the next year working on the farm and doing odd jobs as a mechanic in order to save money.

By the spring of 1919, he had saved nearly $1,000 and was ready to head to college. He considered nearby Langston College, as well as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, both of which had good engineering programs. He also applied to Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa, similarly known for its engineering program. (At the time, Iowa was a fertile ground for aviation activities. As early as 1845, a hot-air balloon was sent up without passengers at Burlington, Iowa, and beginning in 1910, barnstormers flew aircraft at county fairgrounds and other suitable fields around the state.)

Banning was pleased to learn that Iowa State had accepted his application. Following his father's advice and encouragement, he decided to attend the college. Riley and Cora Banning rented their homestead to another family and moved with their son to Ames, Iowa. Ames was a pleasant town with an open attitude toward African Americans, and with relatively little difficulty, the Bannings found a home on West Second Street. Banning began his freshman year as one of only a handful of black students.

Banning continued to work as a mechanic while attending school. He set up shop in his parents' garage, and his skills became well known in the Ames area. In the meantime, Riley Banning purchased a 1915 Iver-Johnson motorcycle for his son. Young Banning soon became a regular sight riding around Ames on his motorcycle.

In the spring of 1920, Banning took his first airplane ride. The opportunity arose when Stanley M. Doyle, a former World War I combat pilot, came to Ames to fly in an air circus. After paying five dollars, Banning hopped into Doyle's Canuck airplane, and the two men took off for the blue skies. The 45-minute flight over the Iowa countryside was a thrill for Banning.

After leaving college and deciding to focus on automobile and motorcycle repair for several years, Banning's interests turned to airplanes and flight school. At the end of 1924, after spending considerable time to locate a flight school that would accept him as a student, Banning persuaded World War I veteran Lieutenant Raymond C. Fisher to teach him to fly. That winter, in between blizzards, Banning would travel the snowy roads from Ames to Des Moines to train in an old Hummingbird airplane. In 1926, Banning became the first African American pilot to earn a pilot's license–a limited commercial license, number 1324. (It was not until 1926 that the United States began licensing pilots. Until 1926, a pilot in the United States either flew without a license or earned a certificate from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).)

Banning then became a fixture at air shows around Iowa, flying either an OX-5 Jenny or a white Hummingbird he dubbed Miss Ames. In one instance at the May 1929 re-dedication of the Gerbracht Airport, Banning tried to join the activities in his white Hummingbird, but it would not fly properly. Another auto mechanic and pilot, Marion Wearth, went to Wichita to pick up a substitute American Eagle biplane for Banning. However, at the close of the program, Banning insisted he had Wearth's permission to fly the American Eagle Wearth already had at Ames, and pushed it out of the hangar. Banning began stunting for the 8,000 spectators, but the biplane started spinning at 1,000 feet and Banning managed to level the plane slightly before it crashed in a cornfield. He suffered a broken leg, broken ribs, severe cuts, and bruises. The plane's landing gear and wings were heavily damaged, but Wearth was reportedly more concerned about Banning's health than his airplane after this crash.

Later in 1929, once Banning had recovered from his injuries, William J. Powell recruited him to become the chief pilot for the newly formed Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, which had as its mission the training of African American pilots. As Emory Malick had ceased flying in 1928, Banning had become the most experienced black pilot in the country and was a seasoned barnstormer with more than 750 hours of flying to his credit. This experience qualified him to not only carry passengers but also to fly mail and other cargo. Banning served as the chief instructor for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which held classes at Jefferson High School and maintained a small storefront office at 1423 Jefferson Boulevard in the growing city of Los Angeles.

During this time several black pilots had attempted to raise money for a transcontinental flight. Hubert Julian was the first black pilot to attempt to raise funds for a cross-country trip, but when Julian's plans to purchase a sleek Lockheed fell through, Banning put up $450 for a secondhand Alexander Eagle Rock, a World War I-era biplane with a 14-year old engine. Banning then enlisted a top-notch mechanic, Thomas C. Allen, to fly with him.

Even though by 1932 Banning had flown nearly 1,500 hours, he had difficulty securing financial support for his cross country flight. Long distance flights during the 1930s were usually funded by big companies, and few businesses were willing to support black pilots. With limited support from local numbers runner Ed "Small Black" Dennis, Banning and Allen were able to muster just enough cash to push off on 19 September 1932. They dubbed themselves "The Flying Hoboes" and plotted their route to take them to towns with black populations so they could solicit funds from churches, pool halls, and other such gathering places.

After a series of planned and forced landings, repairs, and near misses, these adventurers eventually reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There they met Robert H. Vann at the YMCA where they were staying before completing the last leg of the flight to Long Island, New York. Vann was working with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democratic presidential campaign in FDR's first run for the White House. Once Vann heard Banning and Allen's story, he came up with an idea. If Banning and Allen would litter the countryside between Pittsburgh and Long Island with 15,000 Roosevelt-Garner campaign flyers, the Democratic Party would assist the pilots with money to fly back to Los Angeles. In a 1982 interview, Thomas Allen stated that they happily carried out the stunt. In the process, they became the first black pilots to campaign for a presidential candidate from the air.

With this last bit of help, Banning and Allen flew into Valley Stream Airfield on Long Island, New York on 9 October 1932, three weeks after their departure from Los Angeles. Their actual time in the air had been less than 42 hours.

Banning and Allen made history. They took off from Los Angeles on 19 September 1932 as hoboes and landed in Long Island, New York on 9 October 1932 as heroes. The black press and mainstream press followed their exploits, including front page coverage in the black-owned Amsterdam News. They were given the keys to New York City, wined and dined at Harlem's Cotton Club, and mobbed on the streets of Harlem.

The pair eventually returned to Los Angeles, where Banning continued to organize and participate in air shows. In February 1933 Banning was a passenger in an airplane flying from Tech Field at Fort Kearney, San Diego. The pilot, a white machinist's mate, began experiencing difficulty with the aircraft, but Banning, sitting in the passenger's seat with no control stick, was unable to reach the controls, and the aircraft plummeted to earth. Tragically, James Herman Banning, a skilled pilot who had devoted his life to aviation and helped other blacks obtain flying licenses, was killed.

Banning was just 32 years old, and great sorrow swept through the nation's black communities at the news of his untimely death. His adventurous spirit, however, would long be remembered.

Hubert BanningHubert Fauntleroy Julian (left), standing with William Powell, circa 1931. Courtesy of The Philip Hart Collection.


Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born in 1897 in the town of Port of Spain in Trinidad, an island in the West Indies. Julian came from a well-to-do family, as his father was a cocoa plantation manager. It was in Trinidad that he saw an airplane for the first time in 1911. He was very impressed not only with the plane but also with the pilot's clothing and distinguished manner. This vision remained with Julian for the rest of his life.

Julian's parents, believing their son would be better educated in England than in Trinidad, sent him abroad to attend school. However, by 1914 World War I had broken out on the European continent and his family thought it best that he leave England. In August 1914, Julian sailed off to Canada to continue his education. There he settled in Montreal, Quebec, and lived with West Indian friends.

When in Montreal, young Julian often thought of the airplane and pilot that he saw in Trinidad in 1911. He was hoping he could convince a local pilot to take him up in a plane, and he began spending his free time at the St. Hubert airfield in Montreal. (Julian took the name of the field as a good sign.) World War I hero William "Billy" Bishop eventually noticed this everyday visitor to the airfield, but it was not his race that caused Julian to stand out. Indeed, there were nearly 20,000 blacks living in Montreal at the time. Rather, Julian stood out thanks to his persistence, intelligence, and proud bearing. On a chilly day in 1919, Billy Bishop took an excited Julian for a ten-minute ride in a Sopwith Camel. After this memorable experience, Julian knew he wanted to learn to fly.

Julian migrated from Montreal to Harlem in 1921. His first flight above Harlem took place in 1922 during the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Convention, when he flew over the parade in a plane decorated with UNIA slogans. That flight led to his appointment as head of the organization's new Aeronautical Department. Julian made his first parachute jump on 3 September 1922 at an airshow at Curtiss Field on Long Island that was headlined by Bessie Coleman. Several more jumps followed in the next year at Curtiss Field and Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. During one jump in New Jersey in June 1923, Julian played "Runnin' Wild" on the saxophone.

Julian's most famous parachute jumps were into Harlem itself. On 29 April 1923, Julian jumped from a plane in a bright red jumpsuit. The wind carried him away from his target, a vacant lot on 140th Street near Seventh Avenue, to the roof of a tenement at 301 West 140th Street. On 5 November 1923, Julian again flew to Harlem, planning to parachute into Saint Nicholas Park. On this occasion the wind carried him instead to the police station on West 123rd Street, where he was promptly arrested. In both of these instances huge crowds followed Julian, who was proving to be a master showman (Hart, 1986 and 1992).

In 1924, Julian shifted his focus from parachute jumping to piloting airplanes. In July 1924, Julian intended to fly to Africa and become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. He dubbed his airplane Ethiopia I and began raising funds for this historic flight. However, his plane crashed into the water off Flushing, New York, and Julian spent the next month in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

After this failure, Julian twice more tried to raise money to buy planes for a flight across the Atlantic. In 1926, he planned a flight to Liberia with backing from a West Indian subsidiary of Standard Oil, boxer Tiger Flowers, and Elks Lodges, but it never took place. In 1928, Julian sought funds for a plane to make a round trip flight to Paris. This flight had the backing of New York State Senator A. Spencer Feld, but this venture also fizzled. By this time Julian was gaining the reputation of one who made big plans but could not carry them out.

Though Julian never succeeded in flying across the Atlantic, his efforts made him an international celebrity. In 1931 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie invited Julian to that East African country for his coronation ceremonies. Julian's parachuting and flying skills so impressed Emperor Selassie that he granted him Abyssinian citizenship and bestowed on him the rank of colonel. Emperor Selassie expressed interest in organizing an air force with which Julian could assist. This proved prescient, for when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Julian was in charge of the air force, which at that time comprised three planes. However, after getting into a fist fight with Chicago pilot John C. Robinson, who was also in Ethiopia, Julian was forced to leave the country. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian air force proved to be nothing more than a minor factor in the resistance.

Between 1930 and 1935, Julian crisscrossed the United States, flying and parachute jumping. In his travels, he bridged the gap between the black aviation communities in Los Angeles and Chicago. In December of 1931 William Powell brought Julian to Los Angeles to headline an air show to be put on for the City of Los Angeles Unemployment Fund at the behest of Mayor John Porter. Julian was to parachute jump during this event, as well as fly in formation with the Five Blackbirds. According to fellow Blackbird member, Marie Dickerson Coker, Julian disappointed those in attendance, as he ended up getting lost while flying with the Five Blackbirds. (Hart, 1983)

In the 1940s, Julian was living in Harlem, where he attained a certain level of celebrity. After the United States entered World War II, Julian volunteered to train for combat with the Tuskegee Airmen but was rebuffed. He was a colorful character who wore a non-regulation colonel's uniform, though he held no rank with the United States Armed Forces and never flew in combat.

Later in his life, Julian maintained his connections to Ethiopia and Emperor Selassie. In 1974, Julian, who had settled into the rather sedate existence of running a sugar brokerage firm in New York, learned of Selassie's imprisonment during the Derg Coup by the Ethiopian military. Julian offered $1.45 million cash to the Ethiopian government to free Selassie, as Julian felt he owed his prominence and stature to Selassie. The offer was declined.

Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem, lived in the Bronx for the remainder of his life. He died quietly at the Veteran's Hospital in the Bronx on 19 February 1983.

Cornelius CoffeyCornelius Coffey in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6606.


Cornelius Coffey was born in Newport, Arkansas on 6 September 1903, just a few months before Orville and Wilbur Wright took the first flight in a motor-powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Coffey took his first airplane ride when he was 13 years old, and that exciting ride hooked him on aviation for the rest of his life. As Coffey tells the story, "There was a barnstormer at my home, and he came in giving rides. He was charging a dollar and fifty cents for a ride. So my buddy decided that he was going to dare me to take a ride in this airplane. I heard the pilot tell one of the fellows, 'He'll never even look at another airplane, let alone take a ride.'" The pilot performed all sorts of daring stunts, trying to scare Coffey away from flying. "Man, I almost got into a tailspin trying to excite him," the pilot said.

Coffey's family relocated to Chicago when he was young. In 1925 Coffey enrolled in a trade school on the south side of Chicago to study automobile mechanics. It was here that he met John C. Robinson, who also shared Coffey's ambition to learn how to fly an airplane.

After completing their auto mechanic training, both Coffey and Robinson were hired by Emil Mack, a white man who owned a Chevrolet dealership in Elmwood Park, Illinois. While working for Mack, Coffey and Robinson applied to the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago for an aviation mechanics course, and both were accepted. Upon reporting to the school for the start of classes, however, Coffey and Robinson were refused admittance when it was discovered they were black. The school attempted to reimburse the two men for the tuition that had already been paid, but their employer, Emil Mack, threatened to sue the school if they were not allowed to enter. The school backed down and allowed Coffey and Robinson to attend. Two years later they graduated at the top of their class.

Coffey and Robinson proceeded to organize the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association in 1931. Because most airports were segregated in those days, the association had to build an airstrip in a black community. After securing land in the black township of Robbins, Illinois, in 1933, the group's next important task was to find an airplane. Coffey recalled that six or seven months later, they found a used car dealer willing to take an automobile as a trade on an airplane, and that John Robinson traded in his car for a Hummingbird biplane.

Willa Brown was the public relations person for the association, and she proved very successful at attracting press coverage for the Challenger air shows. Coffey would end up marrying Willa Brown during this time. In the late 1930s, Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport, located south of Chicago at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue. From 1938 to 1945, more than 1,500 black students went through the school, including many who would later become Tuskegee Airmen.

In addition to operating the Challenger Air Pilots Association, Coffey, Robinson, Brown, and the other Chicago flyers tried to interest the Tuskegee Institute in building an aviation program. Coffey and Robinson flew to Tuskegee in the mid-1930s to encourage the Institute to include aviation in its program, but the school rejected their idea. On the way back to Chicago from Tuskegee after this disappointing trip, Coffey and Robinson crashed and lost their airplane.

As the Chicago aero club grew, the aviators became frustrated that neither Tuskegee nor the U.S. military would train blacks as combat pilots. They were all aware of Eugene Bullard flying for the French air force in World War I, and they knew of efforts by Haile Selassie and Hubert Julian to organize an Ethiopian air force. John Robinson did eventually join Julian in Ethiopia for a short time, but he returned to Chicago after the Italian invasion in 1935.

Coffey, Robinson, and others in Chicago next turned their attention to the United States government. The pilots hoped to convince government officials to accept blacks into the Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT), a flight school established by Congress to prepare civilian pilots for wartime emergency. With the assistance of the NAACP and other groups, the Chicago flyers successfully persuaded the government to open up the CPT to blacks in 1939. For the first time, black pilots had access to U.S. government flight training.

The role of blacks in aviation was changing. African Americans had shown they indeed had the ability to fly, and black pilots were finally being recognized as important participants in the growing field of aviation. Tuskegee Institute would soon become the central training ground for black combat pilots, and many CPT graduates would go on to become Tuskegee Airmen.

Coffey was a key contributor to this shift. After World War II ended, Coffey served as an instructor at the Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport and at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, training some of the first blacks to be hired as mechanics by commercial airlines.

Cornelius Coffey was the first black person to hold both a pilot's license and mechanic's license. He was the recipient of the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and was the first African American to have an aerial navigation intersection named after him by the FAA. (The waypoint, named the "Coffey Fix", is located on the VICTOR 7 airway over Lake Calumet, and provides electronic course guidance to Chicago Midway Airport Runway 31 Left). Coffey also designed a carburetor heater that prevented icing and allowed airplanes to fly in all kinds of weather. Similar devices are still in use in aircraft today (Hart, 1984).

Coffey was also the first black person to establish a formal aeronautical school in the United States. His school was the only non-university affiliated aviation school to become part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and his pioneering efforts led to the integration of black pilots into the American aviation industry. The Cornelius Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train a younger generation of high school and college students interested in aviation.

Cornelius Coffey–master mechanic, veteran pilot, and aviation educator–passed away in Chicago, Illinois on 2 March 1994.

Willa BrownWilla Brown in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number WEB11675-2010


Willa Beatrice Brown was born on 22 January 1906 in Glasgow, Kentucky. She came to Chicago in 1932 after receiving a bachelor's degree from Indiana State Teachers College and teaching in Gary, Indiana. While earning a master's degree in business education from Northwestern University, she also studied airplane mechanics at the Aeronautical University in Chicago's Loop in 1934 and 1935.

Brown worked closely with Cornelius Coffey at the Challenger Air Pilots Association. She served as the public relations person for the club, and she proved very successful at attracting press coverage for Challenger air shows. Enoch Waters, city editor of the Chicago Defender, remembered seeing Brown for the first time. As Waters noted, "When Willa Brown, a young woman wearing white jodhpurs, jacket, and boots, strode into our newsroom in 1936, she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters, which had been clacking noisily, suddenly went silent...She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her voice...In a businesslike manner she explained that she was an aviatrix and wanted some publicity for a Negro air show at Harlem Airport on the city's southwest side...Fascinated both by her and the idea of Negro aviators, I decided to follow up the story myself...So happy was Willa over our appearance that she offered to take me up for a free ride. She was piloting a Piper Cub...It was a thrilling experience, and the maneuvers–figure eights, flip-overs, and stalls–were exhilarating, though momentarily frightening. I wasn't convinced of her competence until we landed smoothly." (Hart, 1992)

Enoch Waters' fascination with Brown mirrored Robert Abbott's fascination with Bessie Coleman nearly 15 years earlier. In fact, Brown herself had been inspired by Bessie Coleman. In addition to being a member of the Challenger Air Pilots Association, Brown also belonged to the Chicago Girls Flight Club, during which time she purchased her own airplane. She earned her pilot's license in 1937, becoming the first American woman to do so, the same year she received her master's degree from Northwestern University. In 1937, Brown also co-founded the National Airmen's Association of America, an organization that worked to allow the entry of African Americans into the United States Air Force. In 1939 she received a commercial pilot's license and, following in Coleman's footsteps, became the first black woman to make a career of aviation.

When Brown decided to learn to fly, she enrolled at Cornelius Coffey's Flying School at Harlem Airport, just outside Chicago. Brown soon partnered with Coffey not only in the context of the aviation school, but also by becoming his wife. It was the second marriage for Brown and the first for Coffey. Following World War II, the two ended their marriage, but continued to work closely together.

In 1940, Brown and Coffey founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where approximately 200 pilots were trained in the next seven years. Some of these pilots became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, and later came to be known as the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. Brown's efforts were directly responsible for the squadron's creation, which led to the integration of the military in 1948. It was also Brown, working under the tutelage of Coffey and Robinson, who initiated the annual memorial fly-over of Bessie Coleman's grave to commemorate the woman who had inspired them all.

In 1941, Brown became the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the U.S. government named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit. By adding her mechanic's license in 1943, she became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic's license and a commercial pilot's license. Brown also lobbied Washington for the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the Army Air Corps. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Brown was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Women's Advisory Board in 1972 in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, instructor, and activist. She passed away on 18 July 1992, and was inducted into her native state of Kentucky's Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.

Janet BraggJanet Bragg (right) stands with her family, circa 1937. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6610.


Jane Nattie Harmon was born 24 March 1907 in Griffin, Georgia to Samuel Harmon and Cordia Batts. According to her autobiography, her father was a brick contractor while her mother was a homemaker who sometime worked outside the home (Bragg, 1996). She was the seventh child in a family with African and Cherokee ancestry. Jane Nettie soon became known as Janet when her third grade teacher combined the two names. She attended Episcopal boarding schools and after graduation pursued a nursing degree at Spelman Seminary (soon to be Spelman College) in Atlanta, where she qualified as a registered nurse in 1929.

At some point in 1931, Harmon left for Chicago's south side, where she moved into a three-flat building owned by registered nurse Mrs. Willie Carey. This move would allow Harmon to look for work in Chicago. After a series of non-nursing jobs, she finally was hired in a night supervisor job at Wilson Hospital. During this time she came to realize that de facto segregation existed in the north as much as it did in the south, and that getting a job was almost as difficult, despite her good education.

In 1933 Harmon enrolled at Aeronautical University, formerly a Curtiss-Wright school, a segregated black aviation school managed by John C. Robinson and Cornelius Coffey. As she states in her autobiography, she was inspired to learn to fly when she saw a billboard in Chicago with a bird sitting on the rim of a nest, nurturing her young fledglings into the sky. The billboard read, "Birds Learn to Fly. Why Can't You?" (Bragg, 1996). She was the only woman in a class of 24 black men. With $600 of Harmon's money the school was able to purchase its first licensed airplane, an OX-5 International, in 1934. Chicago aviation pioneer Harold Hurd believes this airplane was the first licensed plane to be owned by a black woman. At the time, the school was also building its own airfield in Robbins, Illinois. In the summer of 1934, Harmon learned how to fly and earned her private pilot's license. Even at that time flying was considered a man's game, and the black men in the club would not help her. It was not until she helped fund the purchase of the airplane, as well as the purchase and building of the airfield, that her colleagues' respect for her grew.

Out of this airfield, Harmon, Coffey, Robinson, and some of her classmates formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, later known as the National Airmen's Association of America (NAAA), to create a nationwide network of African Americans who were interested in learning to fly. Around 1934, the school's flight training program moved to Harlem Airport in Oak Lawn, Illinois, after the hangar they built at Robbins was destroyed by a storm. The move allowed for further development of the school, and in 1939 Harmon and her colleagues were allowed to start the only Civilian Pilot Training Program for African Americans that was not located on a college campus.

The NAAA was incorporated by the state of Illinois on 16 August 1939, with Coffey as president. Other charter members included Dale White, Harold Hurd, Willa Brown, Marie St. Clair, Charles Johnson, Chauncey Spencer, Grover Nash, Edward Johnson, George Williams, and Enoch P. Waters, Jr. The mission of the NAAA was to stimulate interest in aviation and to promote a better understanding of the field of aeronautics within the black community. Even before being incorporated, the NAAA sent two of its charter members, Dale White and Chauncey Spencer, to Washington, D.C. to meet with government officials to promote the cause of black participation in aviation. In order to finance this trip, which left Chicago on 9 May 1939, the group had to raise funds for the rental of a Lincoln-Paige biplane, fuel, food, hotel expenses, and incidentals. After the members drained their own funds for this flight, they still came up short. It was then recommended by local businessmen that they approach the Jones brothers, who headed the policy racket (or numbers game) on the south side of Chicago. The Jones brothers came up with the remaining cash needed to fund the trip (Bragg, 1996). Thus, like James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen in September 1932 when they received funding from numbers runner Ed "Small Black" Dennis in order to make their historic cross-country flight, the Chicago flyers also had to turn to an "extra-legal" source of funding for their historic flight. At the same time, white pilots were often receiving corporate support for their efforts.

In 1943, during World War II, Harmon was encouraged by a white woman she was teaching to fly to apply for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Organization. When she met with Ethel Sheehy, who was at the time the assistant to Jacqueline Cochran, the head of WASP, Sheehy was taken aback when she realized Harmon was black. Sheehy told her, "Well, I've never interviewed a colored girl for flying," to which Harmon replied, "Well, we have plenty of them to fly." Sheehy then proceeded to send Harmon home without an interview. Harmon later applied to the military nurse corps, but was denied admission here as well because, it was claimed, the "colored quota" had already been met. In both of these instances, Harmon was passed over for white women with weaker credentials.

Thus, nearly 20 years after Bessie Coleman was denied entry to flight schools in the United States because of her race and gender, Harmon was denied entry into non-segregated flight schools for the same reason. Adding insult to injury, she was denied entry by white women who themselves had broken down the gender barrier. But like Bessie Coleman before her, Harmon showed persistence and grit and kept moving forward to achieve her aviation goals despite the many barriers placed before her. Later in 1943, Harmon enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to earn her commercial pilot's license. After completing the required coursework and passing the written exam, she took her flight test with T.K. Hudson, the federal flight examiner, who was a white southerner. Once her flight test was over, Harmon was denied a license because she was a black woman. As T.K. Hudson stated: "...I've never given a colored girl a commercial license and I don't intend to now" (Bragg, 1996).

With disappointment dogging her after this negative experience at Tuskegee Institute, Harmon returned to Chicago, retook the same examination, and passed once again. She received her commercial pilot's license at Pal-Waukee Field, Illinois. As Harmon stated later in her life, "There were so many things they said women couldn't do and blacks couldn't do...Every defeat to me was a challenge" (Bragg, 1996).

Harmon married her second husband, Sumner Bragg, in 1952, and together they managed two nursing homes in Chicago until they retired to Tucson, Arizona in 1972. Janet Harmon Bragg continued to be active in aviation until her death on 11 April 1993. With the help of Marjorie M. Kriz, Bragg's autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996.

Janet Harmon Bragg and Willa Brown appear on the DVD cover of my 1987 PBS documentary film Flyers In Search of a Dream, which tells the story of America's first black aviators. Both of these women were inspired by Bessie Coleman and they represent the persistence that was needed to succeed in the new field of aviation during the early years of the 20th century.

John C. RobinsonJohn C. Robinson (far right) stands with other members of the National Airmen's Association of America, circa 1939.


John Charles Robinson was born in Florida in 1903. His father died in an accident shortly after he was born. His mother Celeste then moved with him and his sister to Gulfport, Mississippi. In 1910 at the age of seven, Robinson saw his first aircraft, a float plane that taxied to a beach where the pilot intended to pick up his girlfriend. The curious crowd then watched the silver plane glide out into the Gulf of Mexico, take off, and soar above them. From that moment, Robinson knew he wanted to one day learn how to fly an airplane. When he ran home with excitement to tell his mother about what he had just seen and of his dream to one day learn how to fly, she said bluntly, "A black man has no business fooling around with airplanes."

Robinson later attended Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (later Tuskegee Institute), where he learned to be an automobile mechanic. This focus on mechanics and industry was the mission of Tuskegee, as its goal was to provide training for black students that would lead to jobs in a segregated America. As it would turn out, Robinson's focus on automobile mechanics would serve him well in his future career as a pilot, just as it had served James Herman Banning and other black pilots. Once Robinson finished college, he headed to Detroit, Michigan, thinking that there would be more opportunities there for an auto mechanic than in the segregated South.

In Detroit, he earned a reputation for being an exceptionally good auto mechanic. Despite this success, Robinson still dreamed of learning to fly. As he soon learned, however, most air shows and flight schools would not even let a black man pay to go up for an airplane ride, let alone teach him to fly. Then, one day in the countryside outside of Detroit, he encountered a former barnstormer down on his luck, his biplane disabled with engine trouble. Although Robinson had not worked on an aircraft engine before, he offered to work on the barnstormer's airplane engine in exchange for a ride. To his surprise, Robinson succeeded in fixing engine. The relieved barnstormer then took Robinson up for his first airplane ride over the Michigan countryside, per their agreement. Another young man, also a pilot, was there at the time and, upon observing Robinson's competence in repairing the plane's engine, agreed to help him to learn to fly. Robinson soon decided to move to Chicago as he became aware of a small but growing black aviation community in that city.

Once in Chicago, Robinson came into contact with like-minded individuals such as Cornelius Coffey, who had developed a love of manned flight during this Golden Age of Aviation. He was able to secure a full-time job in an automobile garage soon after finding his way to Chicago. Even with this job, Robinson soon signed on as a night-time janitor in a Curtiss-Wright classroom once he realized the school would not accept him due to his race. He thus became a full-time auto mechanic during the day and a janitor after dark. As a janitor at Curtiss-Wright, he absorbed the instructor's lectures. The instructor soon came to realize how determined Robinson was and persuaded the school to let him enroll.

After working together at Emil Mack's auto repair shop, both Robinson and Coffey enrolled in the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics. The two had become fast friends, and their relationship would lead to collaboration over the years on many aviation-related projects, all with the goal of bringing more African Americans into this burgeoning industry. It was Robinson and Coffey who, in May 1934, first planted the seed for the establishment of an aviation school at Robinson's alma mater, Tuskegee Institute.

Across black America during this Golden Age of Aviation, Robinson was widely acclaimed as the long-awaited "black Lindbergh." Robinson's fame, which for a time rivaled that of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, came primarily from his wartime role as the commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

It was Robinson's aviation activities in Chicago that attracted the attention of Haile Selassie and Howard University-educated physician and Ethiopian activist Melaku E. Bayen. They recruited Robinson to join them in Ethiopia to fight against the Italian invasion. Robinson became the only African American who served for the entirety of the war, during which time he became known as the "Brown Condor of Ethiopia."

Ultimately, Mussolini's Italian forces conquered Ethiopia. Selassie managed to escape to England, and Robinson made his way back to Chicago in 1936, where he was photographed alighting from an airplane flanked by Janet Harmon and Willa Brown.

Back home in Chicago, the flight school that Robinson had established in 1931 with Coffey was flourishing, and buoyed by the return of the Brown Condor. In addition, the Tuskegee Institute finally heeded his earlier suggestion and introduced an aviation program. Robinson's school in Chicago and the Tuskegee Institute went on to produce hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen who later gained fame during World War II.

Once the war ended, Selassie returned to rule in Ethiopia. He invited Robinson back to Ethiopia, first to rebuild the nation's air force, then to create Ethiopian Airlines. On 27 March 1954, Colonel Robinson died of injuries he suffered in a plane crash that had occurred two weeks earlier at the Addis Ababa Airport. Robinson was buried the next day at Gulele cemetery in a large and massive ceremony attended by a huge crowd that included Emperor Haile Selassie, the Duke of Harrar, Prince Mekonnen Haile Selassie, military commanders, cabinet ministers, and other government officials. From Mississippi to Chicago to Ethiopia, the Brown Condor had a major impact on aviation's growth and development, not only in the African American community, but on the African continent as well.