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Early African American Aviators

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Emory Malick

Emory Malick's official Curtiss Aviation School Class of 1912 portrait. Courtesy of Mary Groce and the Malick Family Collection.


Emory Malick's story is one of the mysteries of mixed racial heritage in America. The Malick mystery was not revealed until 2004, when Pennsylvania native Mary Groce was rummaging through a box of family papers with her cousin Aileen and found a sheet of old letterhead for an "Emory C. Malick, Licensee: Pilot No. 105." Included on the letterhead was a photograph of a handsome young man wearing his cap backward and sitting in a Curtiss pusher-type airplane.

Groce handed the letterhead to her cousin. "Have you ever seen this photo of our great-uncle Emory?" she asked. She recalls her cousin's surprise: "Aileen looked at the paper and replied, "'Oh my god. He's black'" (Maksel, 2011).

Since that day in 2004, Mary Groce has been trying to find more about her great-uncle's story. She says she was never told about Malick or her mixed racial heritage. Perhaps due to the secrecy surrounding this family's particular history, Malick's historic accomplishment escaped the comprehensive research of the Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum curators and other aviation historians working to piece together the stories of America's first black aviators. The good news is that even though the family secret was kept for nearly a century, the family did preserve a considerable number of photographs and other material about Malick (Personal correspondence with Mary Groce).

Groce's family secret may also explain in part why Malick's historical significance had been lost for nearly one hundred years. Malick studied at the Curtiss Aviation School on North Island, San Diego, and received his pilot's license in March 1912. He was 31 years old, making him not only the first known African American pilot, but also the first black person to earn a pilot's license in the United States. His license was granted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), based in France. Why was Malick able to earn his pilot's license in San Diego in 1912, while both Eugene Bullard in 1917 and Bessie Coleman in 1921 were forced to go to France to become licensed pilots? Was it due to Malick's friendship with influential aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss? Perhaps Malick was passing for white, as there is evidence that census information described him as being white or mulatto.

Even with these recent findings, there remains a great deal about Malick that is unknown. Mary Groce's research has shown that before 1910 Malick built and flew his own gliders near the Susquehanna River. By 1914, according to reports in Pennsylvania's Selinsgrove Times, Malick had purchased a biplane which he flew over the town "to the wonderment of all, [...](F)actories temporarily shut down to witness the novelty." (Maksel, 2011)

Malick later moved to Philadelphia where he did aerial photography for the Aero Service Corporation and Dallin Air Surveys. He also worked for the Flying Dutchman Air Service, which offered flight instruction, aerial photography, and passenger flights, and he may have been a co-owner of the Flying Dutchman Air Service, according to Mary Groce. Records show that Malick earned a transport pilot's license from the U.S. Government in 1927, which would have also been a first for a black pilot.

Malick also participated in air shows. It was on a windy and cold March day in 1928 at an air show in Camden, New Jersey that Malick took up two passengers for a quick hop in his Waco three-seater. They were barely off the ground when the engine died. Malick banked to the left to avoid the spectators below, but the wind caught the aircraft and the Waco crashed. Malick's two passengers were injured.

Later that year Malick crashed again–the cause is not known–this time injuring himself and killing his passenger. Though he never flew again, Malick remained interested in aviation. At a flying banquet he displayed the 60-horsepower engine that powered his 1914 flight over the town. But the pioneer pilot refused all opportunities to go flying. Documents at the Snyder County Historical Society say that in the 1930s when local pilots offered to take Malick flying he would reply, "I had my fun, and now I'm done." (Maksel, 2011)

In December 1958 when he was 77 years old, Malick slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk in Philadelphia. He died in the hospital. With no identification on him, his body lay unclaimed in the morgue for more than a month until his identity could be established.

As more is learned about Malick over the period from 1912 to 1928, it will be interesting to determine whether there was any contact between Malick and other black aviation pioneers such as Eugene Bullard, Bessie Coleman, William J. Powell, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, and James Herman Banning. It will also be interesting to determine whether the black press, including newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, were aware of Malick, as these newspapers regularly covered other black aviators during this period.

Since the September 1982 opening of the Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum "Black Wings" exhibit, we have learned a great deal about America's first black aviators. Emory C. Malick can now be recognized for his contributions to American aviation history, but much more remains to be learned. One of the joys of researching America's first black pilots is that another story like Malick's may be lurking around the corner.

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