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)
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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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