A Quarter Century of “Black Wings”

A talk with the curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s soon-to-be-updated exhibit on African-Americans in aviation.

In March 1945, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis was commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces 332nd Fighter Group (better known as the Tuskegee airmen) in Italy. Pilots of the 332nd flew North American P-51 Mustangs as fighter escorts for Allied bombers. After the war, Davis would become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. (Toni Frissell Collection/Library of Congress)
Air & Space Magazine

Curator Von Hardesty, who is currently researching the book, says it will feature a 20,000-word narrative on African-American aerospace history as well as photos of prominent figures.

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Hardesty spoke with Air & Space Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi in February.

A&S: How did you go about preparing an exhibit on black aviation history?

Hardesty: We interviewed a lot of early African-American aviation pioneers, and what’s so wonderful is that several of the people featured in the exhibit were still living. Many of these people have passed from the scene now, but they were still around in the early ’80s, so they were able to provide photographs, information, and commentary on what we were doing. It couldn’t have been a better time to do the exhibit.

Any memories of the opening in 1983?

In those days, we had a little bit more money to throw on a party, and the one for “Black Wings” turned out to be one of the most extraordinary ones because of the people who showed up. We had a host of Tuskegee airmen. And we had some people who were very much involved in the early years of black aviation. We had black astronauts here. It was an enormous get-together. It was a real celebration.

What are some of the challenges in researching black aviation history?

Take for example, the Tuskegee airmen: We have gone from a time when they were ignored and neglected as a part of the Army Air Corps to a point now where they’ve kind of become—the phrase I use sometimes—postage-stamp characters. They’re very two-dimensional. So you go from this era of neglect and dismissal to an era of glorification. Neither one is desirable; you want something more historical and nuanced than that.

If you were researching Amelia Earhart, I imagine it would be easy to find newspaper and magazine coverage of her exploits, but there probably wasn’t much press coverage of black record-setting pilots.

That’s true. And the further you go back, you realize how segregated the press was in those days. For example, if you wanted to study newspaper accounts of early black aviators, you don’t go to the Chicago Tribune, you go to the Chicago Defender—the all-black newspaper—and the Pittsburgh Courier. These newspapers often showcased what blacks were doing; the so-called white press, mainstream newspapers, were just politely disinterested. So that’s one of the problems.

When we did the exhibit [in 1983], we came across two posters that related to all-black airshows in the late ’30s. And some of the names [on the posters] have slipped into obscurity. Other names are known; we have some paper trail on them. There were these circuits of barnstormers and parachute jumpers and fliers who would [perform], and they would draw an all-black audience. They were around before World War II. Some things are known about them, but there’s a great deal of mystery because not much [written documentation] has survived.

I did find in what was called at the time the “Negro press” some coverage of this one parachute jumper, Suicide Jones, who was a pretty flamboyant and brave guy. He made these high-altitude jumps. But when you go back and try to reconstruct his career, it’s really daunting. I could find only fleeting and partially detailed accounts of his career.

How do you respond to people who ask why the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t also have an exhibit on, say, Hispanic aviators or Asian-American pilots?

Well, this is not an official [Smithsonian Institution] view—just my own personal view. I think there are some real dangers for the Smithsonian in going down this path where every recognized ethnic group has their own slice of history or museum—kind of a Balkanization of American history. But with African-Americans, they were the only group, historically, that were explicitly excluded for racist reasons: the charge that they couldn’t fly, lacked the aptitude. They were routinely barred in the era of Jim Crow, in the ’20s and ’30s, from getting into the Army Air Corps, [or] taking classes at aeronautical schools. It was a horrible form of racial discrimination. Finally the Army Air Corps did integrate, but they did so grudgingly. It wouldn’t be until the late ’40s that you really had the integration of the military. So their story, arguably, is unique.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. is an interesting person in all of this. When he wrote his autobiography, it had a very simple title. It was Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American. He just hated hyphenated names: He didn’t like “African-American.” He spent his entire life trying to get himself and his race into a situation where they could participate as Americans, and that was for him the ultimate and fundamental point of identity.

If you talk to some of the early black aviators—and some of the early women aviators—something that always struck me is that they weren’t sociologists. They were not civil rights advocates. They wanted to fly. That was the primary dynamic in their lives. And to the degree they became civil rights crusaders, it was just to get these restrictions lifted.

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