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In the 1930s, Julian’s rival, John Robinson (at far right), founded a pilots’ association to promote aviation among African-Americans. (NASM)

The Black Eagle of Harlem

The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian.

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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.

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.”

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