The Black Eagle of Harlem
The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian.
- By David Shaftel
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
NASM (SI 99-15422)
(Page 2 of 5)
So who was the Black Eagle? A serious aviator who was dismissed because of his race? Or a con artist, as some have suggested? Such blanket assessments miss the point: Julian was an adventurer in the classic sense of the word, a self-promoter who kept a toe in the waters of world history for half a century.
Although Julian had left Trinidad by the time of Frank Boland’s crash, news of the incident influenced him to patent, in 1921, the “Airplane Safety Appliance,” essentially an amalgam of parachute and propeller. He later said his idea pre-figured the chutes used to return the Apollo spacecraft to Earth. Later that year, Julian moved to London to continue his studies, during which time he learned to speak French and Italian (he later added bits of Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, Urdu, and Finnish). In 1914 Julian moved to Montreal, where he claimed he was taught to fly by Canadian World War I ace Billy Bishop.
In 1921 Julian emigrated once again, this time to New York City, where he made a name for himself performing in aerial circuses. He also made a series of parachute jumps over Harlem—wearing a red “devil” jumpsuit during one, playing a saxophone in another. After Julian buzzed a Negro Improvement Association meeting, Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey mistakenly informed the crowd that Julian was “the first Negro in America or in the British Isles or Commonwealth to qualify as a pilot,” a claim Julian did not dispute. (We know that by 1930 he had flown in Ethiopia and the United States.) H. Allen Smith of the New York Herald dubbed him the Black Eagle of Harlem, a sobriquet he embraced till the end.
In 1924 Julian announced his intention to make a solo flight from New York to Liberia, by way of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the West Indies, some three years before Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight. With the help of his frequent collaborator and financier, Clarence Chamberlin, Julian collected money in Harlem to buy a seaplane, which he christened the Ethiopia I. Chamberlin, who had tutored Julian in parachuting and was obsessed with record-setting flights, was himself a towering figure in the rarefied whites-only world of aviation, and would make the first transatlantic flight with a passenger in 1927. Julian writes that he had the support of the West Indian community, but was looked upon as a grifter by American blacks, an inter-community rift that Julian would again cite when he fell out with African-American aviator John Robinson in Ethiopia.
The transatlantic flight was doomed from the start, as Morris Markey recounted in the New Yorker: “The ship left the water. One wing heavily down, it flew an astounding distance under the circumstances. For now it was revealed that the ship was indeed a rickety vehicle, and the pontoons were shuddering with the vibration. In fact, the Ethiopia I was still in sight when one pontoon came off entirely and the ship plunged toward the water. When it crashed it crashed hard.” Julian was rescued by a machinist repairing a motorboat nearby, a man he upgraded to a rum-runner in his autobiography.
“Africa for Africans” was the refrain in Harlem in 1935 as Ethiopia braced for invasion by Italy. Thousands of Harlem residents showed up to protest the invasion; Italian businesses were boycotted, and riots in Harlem marred boxer Joe Louis’ victory over the Italian behemoth Primo Carnera at Yankee Stadium. Selassie’s representatives put out a call for black doctors, nurses, engineers, and scientists in the United States to enlist in the defense of Ethiopia, but few African-Americans were able to do anything but donate small sums of money. As Harlem residents watched the events in Africa, Julian sailed again for Ethiopia.
But the Black Eagle’s plans were stymied by the presence of a foil, the “Brown Condor.” Florida-born John Robinson’s prowess as a pilot was unquestioned. With a diploma in auto mechanics from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a certificate in aviation mechanics from the Curtiss-Wright Flying School, Robinson had been asked to head the civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee; he declined, accepting instead a position in the Ethiopian army. “Robinson was the real thing,” said his biographer Thomas E. Simmons in an interview. “Without him, there would have been no Tuskegee Airmen. He’s the man that planted the fire in the belly that got the flight school established.”
Robinson flew countless reconnaissance and courier missions to the Ethiopian front—some accompanied by Selassie himself—in both an unarmed Beechcraft Staggerwing and a Potez, chased on occasion by fighters from the Italian air force, which, with 140 aircraft, outnumbered the tiny Ethiopian force. During his 12-month stretch in the country, he was shot in the arm during an aerial battle and exposed more than once to mustard gas. When Ethiopia fell, he fled only days before the emperor himself.