Celebrating African Americans in Aviation
Eugene Jacques Bullard
In August of 1917 Eugene Jacques Bullard, an American volunteer in the French army, became the first black military pilot in history and the only black pilot in World War I. Born in Columbus, Georgia on October 9, 1895, Bullard left home at the age of 11 to travel the world, and by 1913 he had settled in France as a prizefighter boxer.
Bullard was sent into battle during the September 1915, Champagne Offensive where 500 infantry men began the battle and only 31 returned. Bullard himself obtained an injury to the head. Because of the massive loss, the unit disbanded and Bullard was joined with the 170th infantry, known as the "Swallows of Death" and later helped him earn the nickname of "The Black Swallow of Death". Verdun became Bullard's next battlefield, and would be where he would receive an injury that would subsequently remove him from the ground war.
While recovering, Bullard was granted with the opportunity to join the French Flying Corps, and soon earned his wings from the aviation school in the city of Tours on May 5, 1917, making him the first black pilot in history. Upon his plane he painted the words, "Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!" translated roughly to mean "All the blood that runs, is red", a testament to his belief that all men are equal, regardless of the color of their skin. For his bravery as an infantryman in combat, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre as well as other decorations, marking him a national hero of significant standing.
Born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children in her family. At a young age she showed promising skill in mathematics, so her mother encouraged her and set her to work as the family bookkeeper. After completing high school, Bessie decided she wanted more, and enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (a teachers college) in Langston, Oklahoma. There she learned about the Wright brothers, as well as Harriet Quimby, but unfortunately did not have enough money to continue her education.
In 1915 at the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago where her brother Walter lived and became a manicurist. In 1920 her brother John, a World War I veteran, visited and told her of how the women in France were allowed to fly airplanes. With some help, Bessie set out for France in November of 1920 and in ten months completed the flying course at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme. On June 15, 1921, Bessie received her pilot's license from the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Bessie was not the first black woman (or even the only woman in her class) to receive a license from the FAI -- but she was the first American to obtain her pilot's license from the French school, and she was the first licensed female black pilot in the U.S.
She became a media sensation and performed entertainment aviation shows, the first being at Curtiss Field near New York City. She had a brief hiatus in her career when she had no plane and no job, but finally found financial backing for a show in Texas, and soon became famous, earning the nickname of "Queen Bess" or "Brave Bessie".
On the evening of April 30, Bessie and her mechanic-pilot took the airplane for a test run. It malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Both she and the pilot died.
Willie "Suicide" Jones
Willie Jones was born in 1915 on a farm near Leland, Mississippi. A strong-willed boy, at the age of 13 he ran away and came upon an airfield where he saw his first plane, and instantly fell in love with wanting to fly. The pilot he watched was a man named Vernon Omlie, who took Jones on as his pupil. That same afternoon, Omlie took Jones up in his plane, and instructed him carefully on how to climb out of the plane and onto the canvas wings. He was a wingwalker. From that day in 1928, his career began in stunt flying.
His name quickly became recognizable for the death-defying stunts he would perform and knew just about every big name pilot of the time. He earned his nickname from a jump in 1934, where his ripcord had become entangled in his boot laces. Unbeknownst to the crowd, he struggled to get his chute open, and with only seconds remaining, was finally able to free the parachute and land. No one saw him land, and his pilot thought he was dead. It wasn't until the next day when he rode into town to meet his pilot (whom he had to convince he was still alive) did people recognize him as the man who surely had fallen to his death.
He traveled with just about every flying circus in the United States, during which time he broke a world's record. In 1939 he performed his signature ‘delayed-opening parachute jumping' and set a new world record.
Hurbert Fauntleroy Julian
Born in 1897 to a prosperous Trinidad plantation owner, Julian was sent to school in England, but was removed to Canada at the start of World War I, and stayed there until entering the United States in 1918. He came to the United States in order to patent his invention that was a cross between a parachute and a helicopter, and while his patent was granted, his machine was never put to practical use. While trying to promote his invention, Julian learned to fly. In 1922 during the Long Island Air Show, he became the first black to parachute from a plane over New York City. Stunts such as this, he did in order to get his name known, and even attempted to fly from New York to Africa, an attempt that ended when his plane crashed into Long Island Bay. However, his name was soon recognizable, and for his stunts the press dubbed him the "Black Eagle of Harlem". In 1930 he was invited to fly at the coronation air show of the new Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. His flight successful, Julian ended in a flourish as he jumped from his plane and parachuted to the feet of the emperor, who was so pleased that he bestowed Ethiopian citizenship on Julian, the rank of colonel, and awarded him the Order of Menelik, the empire's highest honor.
For the next several years he made a living putting on airborne stunt shows, and was the personal pilot for the black religious leader, Father Divine, in 1932. In 1940, when Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, Julian flew to that country and was soon appointed a captain in the Finnish Air Force and placed in charge of a squadron of fighter planes that fought the Russians. When the US entered World War II Julian joined the Army Air Corps, thus becoming a U.S. citizen, but was considered too old for a combat position. Instead, he worked for the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run aircraft plant. In 1948, Julian worked for the Truman campaign, working hard to get the black vote and was later sent by Truman to Berlin to investigate reports of discrimination against black US troops during the Berlin Airlift. In 1962 during the civil strife in the Congo, he was arrested by UN troops in Elisabethville on suspicion of trying to smuggle arms to his old friend, Katangan leader Moise Tshombe.
He returned to the United States where he dabbled briefly in the film business, producing two movies in conjunction with pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux: The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940) and Lying Lips (1939).
Emory Conrad Malick
Emory Conrad Malick studied at the Curtiss Aviation School on North Island and received his license in March 1912 making him the first African American pilot, fourteen years earlier than James Herman Banning who was originally believed to be the first. Malick was born in Seven Points, Pennsylvania on December 29, 1881 to Darius and Susanna Malick. He was the third child of Susan (whom died in 1887) and Darius. His father would remarry and have a total of thirteen children. Malick grew up in Seven Points but spent the majority of his adult life in Philadelphia. He remained a bachelor his whole life.
He designed his own glider planes which he flew across the Susquehanna River to a local farm that he worked at. Malick was a skilled carpenter and for most of his life he assisted his father, also a professional carpenter, working in Harrisburg. In Harrisburg, Malick and his father worked on the interior paneling of the Pennsylvania Railroad dinning and sleeping cars.
Still Malick's desire was to be an aviator. He joined the Pennsylvania Aero Club in 1910. He received his International Pilot's License in San Diego, California on March 20, 1912. In 1913 he was corresponding with the Pennsylvania Advertising Company about becoming their exhibition pilot. Malick became the first aviator in the area flying a Curtiss Bi-plane for the Pennsylvania Advertising Company in August 1914.
When the United States entered WWI, Emory was thirty-seven years old and was too old for service in the military. After being turned down by the military, Malick established a taxi and pleasure flying business in Philadelphia. His company was known as "The Flying Dutchman Air Service." While flying his own plane in 1928, he suffered an unfortunate accident. This ended Malick's flying days but his interest in aviation continued. He was often at the Sunbury Airport watching flying activity. He was asked on several occasions if he wanted to go on flights which he declined saying, "I had my fun and now I'm done." Emory died in 1958.
William J. Powell
William J. Powell was born in Kentucky on July 27, 1897 and his family moved to Chicago where he attended school. He was accepted into the University of Illinois Engineering Program, though his studies were put on hold when World War I broke out. During the war he served in the racially segregated 370th Illinois Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant, and while serving in France, suffered health issues after surviving a poison gas attack.
He went on to finish his studies and became very interested in becoming a pilot. He applied to numerous aviation schools, but was continuously rejected from all area flight schools, and even the Army Air Corps, because of his race. Finally, in 1928, he was accepted into the Los Angeles School of Flight. In four years he was licensed not only as a pilot, but as a navigator and an aeronautical engineer.
As a tribute to Bessie Coleman, the first licensed Black female aviator, he started the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929, and the Bessie Coleman Flying School in Los Angeles, both of which focused on promoting aviation in the African American community. He firmly believed that African-Americans should be as involved in aviation as possible, and spent much of his life attributing to this cause. Powell published Black Wings in 1934. Dedicated to Bessie Coleman, the book encouraged black men and women "to fill the air with black wings." A visionary supporter of aviation, Powell urged black youth to carve out their own destiny—to become pilots, aircraft designers, and business leaders in the field of aviation.
James Herman Banning
James Herman Banning was born in Oklahoma in 1899. He attended Iowa State College, studying electrical engineering and then set his sights on flying. He learned to fly at Raymond Fisher's Flying Field in Des Moines, Iowa, after being turned away from countless flying schools because of race, and became the first black aviator to obtain a license from the U. S. Dept. of Commerce.
Banning then moved to Los Angeles as the chief pilot for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, where he then taught others how to fly. In 1932, he and mechanic Thomas Allen set out to be the first black pilot to fly across America.
Their airplane was one that had debuted six years before their flight, so Banning and Allen rebuilt the engine to bring it up to their standards. The duo set out without enough money for gas and oil, calling themselves the "Flying Hobos". Money had to be raised at nearly every stop in order to get oil and gas to continue their flight, making the trip a 21-day venture. However, after 41 hours and 27 minutes in the air, the two had successfully completed their transcontinental flight, becoming the first black aviators to accomplish this feat.
Banning's name was greatly recognizable afterward, and his success brought him to fly at an exhibition in San Diego, California. A Navy pilot offered to fly Banning over from Lindbergh field to check the gathering crowd. There, the pilot decided to show off for his now famous passenger and pulled into a steep climb from near ground level in front of the stands. The plane stalled, couldn't recover, and crashed, killing both the pilot and Banning.