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Tuskegee cadets gather at a formal assembly. The first graduating class is seated in the front row. (NASM)

The Flight of the Bumblebee

World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.

In October 1925 the Army War College prepared a report for the U.S. Army chief of staff.  Titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” it concluded that blacks were fair laborers but inferior technicians and fighters.  It also stated that the cranial cavity of the Negro was much smaller than the white’s and that the Negro’s brain weighed 35 ounces, versus 45 ounces for the white’s.  Other studies concluded that blacks lacked patriotism, were difficult to discipline, told lies, and ran off in times of danger.

It was upon this basis that the faculty and students of the Army War College and, in later years, officials at the Pentagon decided that no blacks should ever become pilots in the Army Air Corps.

That always reminds me of an old theory that holds that because of its wingspan-to-weight ratio, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly.  But the bee, unaware of this, flies anyhow.  The same was true of us.

During World War II, I was a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron—the first squadron of black pilots.  In the struggle for racial equality during the war, we did as much as—if not more than—any other group I’ve ever known.  We fought two wars: one with the enemy and the other back home in the U.S.A.—Hitler and Jim Crow.  Progress was difficult in both cases, but our victories were sweet.

I had wanted to fly since I was a child.  My chief inspiration was a six-foot-two, 200-pound native of Trinidad who branded himself “the Black Eagle of Harlem.”  Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was an elegant rogue with a haughty air.  He impressed thousands with his black derby, monocle, wing collar, Prince Albert cutaway coat, striped trousers, and spats.  As a six- or seven-year-old, I had no idea that Julian would go on to achieve all kinds of notoriety as the clown prince of black aviation.

One Sunday this dashing figure came to our church in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver a speech about aviation and collect funds toward the purchase of an airplane for a solo nonstop flight from New York City to Rome, Italy.  After a plate was passed for Julian, he invited us to an airshow to watch him make a parachute jump.  He was to play a saxophone while descending.

At the airfield, a chauffeured La Salle convertible passed before the grandstand carrying Julian dressed in a flying suit.  The car veered off and disappeared over a hill at the far end of the field.  A few minutes later an airplane took off.  At high altitude a tiny figure jumped out, the chute opened, and the jumper landed—no saxophone in sight.  As the rest of the crowd turned its attention to airplane displays in the hangar, I happened to catch a glimpse of a truck rolling up behind the building with a billowing parachute in the back.  I ran up, eager to get a close look at the star of the show, only to discover that the jumper in the truck was not Julian.  Somewhere a quick switch had been made.  A few minutes later Julian reappeared in the La Salle, an open parachute trailing behind him, to soak up the accolades of the small crowd.

Julian’s shenanigans were numerous.  There was at least one parachute jump he actually did make: over New York City without a license.  He landed on the skylight of a police station.  At various times Julian posed as a government advisor, fundraiser, barnstormer, bodyguard, lobbyist, stunt pilot, rum runner, foreign correspondent, air marshal, lecturer, mediator, mercenary, arms dealer, movie producer, inventor, double agent, and diplomat.

In retrospect, I reluctantly admit I was on of the thousands he had duped.  Nonetheless, as a black pilot, he was an inspiring role model for a black child.  I was determined to fly.

It was becoming obvious as I grew older, however, that my race would be a major obstacle.  It was my father who told me: “In order to appear equal, you’ve got to be twice as good.”  It shouldn’t be that way, but unfortunately, I’ve found this to be true.

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