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 3 of 5)
While Julian had been welcomed back into the emperor’s good graces, he was not allowed near an airplane—so much the better, wrote Julian. “There were only twelve planes in the whole country,” he said. “To have put them into the air in the path of the Italians would have been like throwing doves to hawks.” Instead, Julian was consigned to drilling 3,000 barefoot citizen-soldiers, in whom he sought to instill “fire and the devil.”
Antagonism between the two airmen finally came to a head when the Black Eagle and the Brown Condor encountered each other in a hotel lobby in Addis Ababa. Julian writes that Robinson was jealous of Julian’s standing with the emperor and had been feeding lies about him to the press. “Robinson pulled a knife,” wrote Julian, “so I picked up a chair, cracked him across the head with it and laid him out.” Simmons tells a different story: “Julian came in there smarting off about Robinson, which was a mistake because John was a serious fellow with a short fuse, and he felt that Julian was undoing everything he was trying to accomplish.”
The bulk of the injury was inflicted in the press, however, and Julian’s days in Ethiopia were again numbered. In his memoir Eye-witness, Australian correspondent Noel Monks relates that Julian had already resorted to a side business. With correspondents virtually confined to their hotel rooms and dependent on official communiqués, they relied on “ ‘spies’ and ‘runners’ whom we’d send off into the blue in search of war news,” writes Monks. “Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem was one of my ‘spies’—and, I subsequently found, he was also ‘spying’ for half a dozen other newsmen. He had fallen from favour now, and was relying solely on the money we paid him.”
When word of the dustup with Robinson reached the emperor, Julian fumed to Monks, “Can you beat it? This goddamned Emperor has put the finger on me. Says I’ve got forty-eight hours to get out of the country. Brother, no guy can do that to me and win a war.” In December 1935, the Cunard liner Aquitania delivered Julian, dressed in beaver-hair coat and derby hat, back to New York. “Bah!” he told reporters. “I have come to the unanimous conclusion that Ethiopia does not need or deserve help.”
With his return to the States, in May 1936, Robinson wrested the headlines from Julian. Robinson would return to Ethiopia in 1944, after the Italians were driven from the country, again to train Ethiopian fliers, but his time there was also not without humiliation. Robinson would be placed under house arrest for assaulting Swedish mercenary pilot Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, who was then working for Selassie. Von Rosen, Simmons says, told Robinson he would not be copilot to a black man. Robinson responded with a knockout punch.
James T. Campbell, professor of history at Stanford University, urges readers to put the experiences of Julian and Robinson into a broader historical context. “These are people whose horizons were bounded,” he says. “They were never going to become American military pilots, they were never going to command the kind of prestige of Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, and they were never going to become the darlings of America, though they might become the darlings of black America. Ethiopia is a place where they could go and all of a sudden they are having dinner with the head of state. Or they are the head of an air force. The fact that people of this kind of distinction had to look outside of this country for some sense of identity and for the possibility of living lives of great achievement has something really powerful to tell us.”
After his Ethiopian days, things moved fast for the Black Eagle. He entered the movie business with Oscar Micheaux, the African-American filmmaker, and continued display flying, but as world war again loomed, Julian sought involvement. He famously challenged Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring to a dogfight over the English Channel to avenge Germany’s “cowardly insult to the honor of my race,” but the closest the Black Eagle got to active service was a stint in the Finnish air force during the 1939 Russian invasion of that country. The Finns gave Julian the rank of captain, but he saw no combat service, as the war in that theater had already ended. Julian, now 43, wrote that it was in Finland “that I was last at the controls of a plane.”
Julian’s second act began in earnest when he established Black Eagle Associates, which started as a company that sold World War II military surplus but quickly evolved into an arms dealership. In fact, the seeds for the enterprise, according to the black newspaper Chicago Defender, had been sown during his second trip to Ethiopia, when he was reported to have escorted an arms shipment into the country, which was under a League of Nations arms embargo.