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

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With his return to the States, in May 1936, Robinson wrested the headlines from Julian. Robinson would return to Ethiopia in 1944, after the Italians were driven from the country, again to train Ethiopian fliers, but his time there was also not without humiliation. Robinson would be placed under house arrest for assaulting Swedish mercenary pilot Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, who was then working for Selassie. Von Rosen, Simmons says, told Robinson he would not be copilot to a black man. Robinson responded with a knockout punch.

James T. Campbell, professor of history at Stanford University, urges readers to put the experiences of Julian and Robinson into a broader historical context. “These are people whose horizons were bounded,” he says. “They were never going to become American military pilots, they were never going to command the kind of prestige of Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, and they were never going to become the darlings of America, though they might become the darlings of black America. Ethiopia is a place where they could go and all of a sudden they are having dinner with the head of state. Or they are the head of an air force. The fact that people of this kind of distinction had to look outside of this country for some sense of identity and for the possibility of living lives of great achievement has something really powerful to tell us.”

After his Ethiopian days, things moved fast for the Black Eagle. He entered the movie business with Oscar Micheaux, the African-American filmmaker, and continued display flying, but as world war again loomed, Julian sought involvement. He famously challenged Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring to a dogfight over the English Channel to avenge Germany’s “cowardly insult to the honor of my race,” but the closest the Black Eagle got to active service was a stint in the Finnish air force during the 1939 Russian invasion of that country. The Finns gave Julian the rank of captain, but he saw no combat service, as the war in that theater had already ended. Julian, now 43, wrote that it was in Finland “that I was last at the controls of a plane.”

Julian’s second act began in earnest when he established Black Eagle Associates, which started as a company that sold World War II military surplus but quickly evolved into an arms dealership. In fact, the seeds for the enterprise, according to the black newspaper Chicago Defender, had been sown during his second trip to Ethiopia, when he was reported to have escorted an arms shipment into the country, which was under a League of Nations arms embargo.

In 1949, Julian became a licensed arms dealer, acting as an agent for developing and newly independent nations. He became “richer now than a yacht full of Greeks.” He pursued this career with uncharacteristic discretion until 1952, when he would again find himself in the headlines after Time magazine reported that in three years as an arms buyer for the Guatemalan government, Julian had sold the left-leaning Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán regime “forty .50-caliber machine guns, six half-tracks, 3,000 pairs of boots, 20 bulletproof vests, and trucks, jeeps, rifles, bazookas and ammunition,” by way of Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, before relations between Guatemala and Julian soured and the shipments were suspended.

Those, and deals in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Pakistan, would earn him decades of FBI surveillance. The FBI’s file is typical of the era: obsessed with Communism and subtly racist, calling Julian “a playboy” who is “subsidized by wealthy white women.” The bureau also called Julian “a crook and imposter” and “arrogant,” but “very intelligent.”

By 1954, the book on Julian’s Ethiopian days was closed. While Julian was a globetrotting arms dealer living “high, wide, and handsome,” John Robinson died in Ethiopia after the airplane he was flying crashed near Addis Ababa in March. Two months later, in a show of solidarity with American blacks, Haile Selassie made a historic visit to Harlem, but this time the Black Eagle was not to be reunited with his former patron; his political allegiances inhabited murkier territory.

Julian was enjoying a second prime as a gunrunner, his time in Ethiopia now just part of his lore. His grandniece, Gail Cochran, 68, remembers visiting Julian in his Bronx townhouse on Sundays when she was a child, where he served exotic fruits and told her of his exploits in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The house, overlooking the Harlem River, she recalls as a museum of his life, with elephant tusks, ivory statues, vintage rifles, and a menagerie of tropical birds, two Persian cats named Ding and Dong, and at least one pet monkey. “He had 350 suits, which had to be made to order because he was so big,” she says. “He would go abroad at the drop of a hat, bringing back gallon bottles of perfume for my mother and sugar cane for me to eat, and gigantic oranges and thick, thick steaks. That was just his way.”

It wasn’t until the early 1960s, during the Congo Crisis, that the Black Eagle’s wings were finally clipped. Unable to resist the greatest mercenary gathering of Africa’s post-colonial wars, Julian turned up in Elisabethville in the breakaway province of Katanga, representing himself as an aid worker arranging for the passage of French-speaking doctors and nurses from the West Indies. On his third visit, Julian was arrested by United Nations law enforcement agents, he said, when he was found to be possessing three antique pistols he intended to give as a gift to his friend, Katangan leader Moise Tshombe, a firearms enthusiast. The U.N. accused him of serving as the middleman in an $18 million arms shipment to Belgian-backed secessionists, this time in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Simultaneously, four World War II-era B-26s linked to Julian and bound for Katanga were seized at Chicago and Newark airports. Julian, 65, spent four months in a Léopoldville prison before being repatriated to the United States. He denied involvement in arms dealing in the Congo to the last.

Upon his return to the United States, Julian continued to maintain his innocence in an interview with the FBI. “Julian was most emphatic in stating that he had never attempted to smuggle munitions into the Congo or arms of any sort, and added that if he wanted to, the United Nations officials in the Congo were so incompetent that it would be an easy matter for him,” the FBI report states. CIA correspondence from the era, however, reveals that at the time of his arrest, Julian possessed a purchase order from a Belgian dealer for 5,000 9-mm pistols, two million cartridges, 120- and 60-mm mortars and shells, and 3,200 machine guns.

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