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 4 of 5)
In 1949, Julian became a licensed arms dealer, acting as an agent for developing and newly independent nations. He became “richer now than a yacht full of Greeks.” He pursued this career with uncharacteristic discretion until 1952, when he would again find himself in the headlines after Time magazine reported that in three years as an arms buyer for the Guatemalan government, Julian had sold the left-leaning Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán regime “forty .50-caliber machine guns, six half-tracks, 3,000 pairs of boots, 20 bulletproof vests, and trucks, jeeps, rifles, bazookas and ammunition,” by way of Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, before relations between Guatemala and Julian soured and the shipments were suspended.
Those, and deals in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Pakistan, would earn him decades of FBI surveillance. The FBI’s file is typical of the era: obsessed with Communism and subtly racist, calling Julian “a playboy” who is “subsidized by wealthy white women.” The bureau also called Julian “a crook and imposter” and “arrogant,” but “very intelligent.”
By 1954, the book on Julian’s Ethiopian days was closed. While Julian was a globetrotting arms dealer living “high, wide, and handsome,” John Robinson died in Ethiopia after the airplane he was flying crashed near Addis Ababa in March. Two months later, in a show of solidarity with American blacks, Haile Selassie made a historic visit to Harlem, but this time the Black Eagle was not to be reunited with his former patron; his political allegiances inhabited murkier territory.
Julian was enjoying a second prime as a gunrunner, his time in Ethiopia now just part of his lore. His grandniece, Gail Cochran, 68, remembers visiting Julian in his Bronx townhouse on Sundays when she was a child, where he served exotic fruits and told her of his exploits in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The house, overlooking the Harlem River, she recalls as a museum of his life, with elephant tusks, ivory statues, vintage rifles, and a menagerie of tropical birds, two Persian cats named Ding and Dong, and at least one pet monkey. “He had 350 suits, which had to be made to order because he was so big,” she says. “He would go abroad at the drop of a hat, bringing back gallon bottles of perfume for my mother and sugar cane for me to eat, and gigantic oranges and thick, thick steaks. That was just his way.”
It wasn’t until the early 1960s, during the Congo Crisis, that the Black Eagle’s wings were finally clipped. Unable to resist the greatest mercenary gathering of Africa’s post-colonial wars, Julian turned up in Elisabethville in the breakaway province of Katanga, representing himself as an aid worker arranging for the passage of French-speaking doctors and nurses from the West Indies. On his third visit, Julian was arrested by United Nations law enforcement agents, he said, when he was found to be possessing three antique pistols he intended to give as a gift to his friend, Katangan leader Moise Tshombe, a firearms enthusiast. The U.N. accused him of serving as the middleman in an $18 million arms shipment to Belgian-backed secessionists, this time in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Simultaneously, four World War II-era B-26s linked to Julian and bound for Katanga were seized at Chicago and Newark airports. Julian, 65, spent four months in a Léopoldville prison before being repatriated to the United States. He denied involvement in arms dealing in the Congo to the last.
Upon his return to the United States, Julian continued to maintain his innocence in an interview with the FBI. “Julian was most emphatic in stating that he had never attempted to smuggle munitions into the Congo or arms of any sort, and added that if he wanted to, the United Nations officials in the Congo were so incompetent that it would be an easy matter for him,” the FBI report states. CIA correspondence from the era, however, reveals that at the time of his arrest, Julian possessed a purchase order from a Belgian dealer for 5,000 9-mm pistols, two million cartridges, 120- and 60-mm mortars and shells, and 3,200 machine guns.
The Congo adventure slowed the Black Eagle, but his FBI files reveal that he was connected with various African states, representing himself as a munitions buyer as late as 1974. After that the Black Eagle lost his rudder. In early 1976 Julian was investigated for threatening to hire “mercenaries utilizing seaplanes with 20 millimeter cannons and incendiary bombs” to sink the oceanliner Queen Elizabeth II; he alleged that Cunard employees had mistreated him. The investigation was dropped after Julian said he made the threat in a time of despair, shortly after the death of his wife Essie. The FBI’s report on the incident, however, revealed that Julian had also been recently investigated for the intended purchase of 66 F-104 fighters from the West German government, again in violation of neutrality acts, and by the U.S. Customs department for the smuggling of gold and diamonds. After these misadventures, Julian stopped courting the press and gave away most of his worldly treasures to the visitors and friends who still called on him.
The Black Eagle of Harlem died of natural causes at age 86 on February 19, 1983. His death went unnoticed in the press until eight months later, when the New York Amsterdam News printed an item in its gossip column that read: “The reason that Colonel Hubert Julian’s death was unknown…boils down to this: His young wife didn’t like his Black Eagle reputation and when he died…she reportedly phoned the…funeral home and told them to pick up the body and bury him, but fast.”