The Black Eagle of Harlem

The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian.

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

In 1930, when future Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie was planning a lavish ceremony to celebrate his coronation as emperor, he sent an emissary to a 33-year-old U.S.-based aviator, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian. Aviation had come to Ethiopia only the year before, with the arrival of a French Potez 25 biplane piloted by André Maillet, but the modernity-obsessed Selassie hoped to put on an aerial display, with a flamboyant performer who would attract the world’s attention. Julian, known in New York as the “Black Eagle of Harlem” and sometimes called the “Negro Lindbergh,” was the perfect choice.

At the emperor-elect’s request, the Ethiopian Imperial Air Force, which consisted of two Junkers monoplanes, a Gipsy Moth, and two French pilots, performed a pre-coronation show. In an unplanned flourish, Julian leapt from Maillet’s airplane, parachuting to the feet of Selassie, who was so pleased that he bestowed Ethiopian citizenship on Julian, the rank of colonel, and awarded him the Order of Menelik, the empire’s highest honor.

Julian’s glory was short-lived. Four months later, during a coronation dress rehearsal in Addis Ababa, Julian lost control of the de Havilland Gipsy Moth he was flying. As the emperor-elect looked on in fury, Julian made a crash landing into a eucalyptus tree. The Moth had been Selassie’s personal airplane, a gift from Selfridge’s department store in London, and Julian was expelled from the country amid allegations that he had stolen the aircraft. He accused the Ethiopian air force’s French airmen of sabotaging him, but conceded in his 1964 memoir, Black Eagle, that “a crash at an air display watched by foreigners whom the Emperor wanted to impress was clearly a disaster.”

So the Black Eagle returned to Harlem. For the rest of his life Julian would continue to promote himself as Selassie’s air marshal, but Ethiopia would prove to be only a brief chapter in the Black Eagle’s just-true-enough life story.

It was in Ethiopia, in 2001, that I first heard of Julian. I was visiting a family of Jamaican Rastafarians who had immigrated to Ethiopia, and while we were discussing the history of other West Indians who had settled in the country, Julian’s name came up.

The Black Eagle is remembered in Ethiopia for his famous pre-coronation crash, and for his vocal anti-fascist stance in the days preceding World War II. He was spoken of reverently—although some of the details of his life were a bit muddled—and is remembered as someone who tried to do heroic things. Even though he didn’t always succeed, he’s considered a hero for trying.

In Julian’s autobiography, I learned that he himself muddled some of the details of his life. He was born in 1897 in the British colony of Trinidad, the son of a cocoa plantation manager. He writes that he grew up in a middle class neighborhood in the capital, Port of Spain, where he attended a British-administered boys’ school. The island’s first exposure to flight ended badly: In January 1913, aircraft designer Frank Boland crashed a tail-less biplane over the Queen’s Park Savannah, near Julian’s home, and was killed instantly. Julian, feeling the need to make the crash part of his personal narrative, moved it back to 1909 in his autobiography, placing himself at the scene.

I would learn that this compulsion to embellish was an essential part of Julian’s character. While these embellishments made it tempting to dismiss Julian as a charlatan, each time I dug deeper I found that his stories usually contained ample elements of truth.

So who was the Black Eagle? A serious aviator who was dismissed because of his race? Or a con artist, as some have suggested? Such blanket assessments miss the point: Julian was an adventurer in the classic sense of the word, a self-promoter who kept a toe in the waters of world history for half a century.

Although Julian had left Trinidad by the time of Frank Boland’s crash, news of the incident influenced him to patent, in 1921, the “Airplane Safety Appliance,” essentially an amalgam of parachute and propeller. He later said his idea pre-figured the chutes used to return the Apollo spacecraft to Earth. Later that year, Julian moved to London to continue his studies, during which time he learned to speak French and Italian (he later added bits of Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, Urdu, and Finnish). In 1914 Julian moved to Montreal, where he claimed he was taught to fly by Canadian World War I ace Billy Bishop.

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