Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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Early African American Aviators

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Hubert Julian

Hubert Fauntleroy Julian (left), standing with William Powell, circa 1931. Courtesy of The Philip Hart Collection.


Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born in 1897 in the town of Port of Spain in Trinidad, an island in the West Indies. Julian came from a well-to-do family, as his father was a cocoa plantation manager. It was in Trinidad that he saw an airplane for the first time in 1911. He was very impressed not only with the plane but also with the pilot's clothing and distinguished manner. This vision remained with Julian for the rest of his life.

Julian's parents, believing their son would be better educated in England than in Trinidad, sent him abroad to attend school. However, by 1914 World War I had broken out on the European continent and his family thought it best that he leave England. In August 1914, Julian sailed off to Canada to continue his education. There he settled in Montreal, Quebec, and lived with West Indian friends.

When in Montreal, young Julian often thought of the airplane and pilot that he saw in Trinidad in 1911. He was hoping he could convince a local pilot to take him up in a plane, and he began spending his free time at the St. Hubert airfield in Montreal. (Julian took the name of the field as a good sign.) World War I hero William "Billy" Bishop eventually noticed this everyday visitor to the airfield, but it was not his race that caused Julian to stand out. Indeed, there were nearly 20,000 blacks living in Montreal at the time. Rather, Julian stood out thanks to his persistence, intelligence, and proud bearing. On a chilly day in 1919, Billy Bishop took an excited Julian for a ten-minute ride in a Sopwith Camel. After this memorable experience, Julian knew he wanted to learn to fly.

Julian migrated from Montreal to Harlem in 1921. His first flight above Harlem took place in 1922 during the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Convention, when he flew over the parade in a plane decorated with UNIA slogans. That flight led to his appointment as head of the organization's new Aeronautical Department. Julian made his first parachute jump on 3 September 1922 at an airshow at Curtiss Field on Long Island that was headlined by Bessie Coleman. Several more jumps followed in the next year at Curtiss Field and Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. During one jump in New Jersey in June 1923, Julian played "Runnin' Wild" on the saxophone.

Julian's most famous parachute jumps were into Harlem itself. On 29 April 1923, Julian jumped from a plane in a bright red jumpsuit. The wind carried him away from his target, a vacant lot on 140th Street near Seventh Avenue, to the roof of a tenement at 301 West 140th Street. On 5 November 1923, Julian again flew to Harlem, planning to parachute into Saint Nicholas Park. On this occasion the wind carried him instead to the police station on West 123rd Street, where he was promptly arrested. In both of these instances huge crowds followed Julian, who was proving to be a master showman (Hart, 1986 and 1992).

In 1924, Julian shifted his focus from parachute jumping to piloting airplanes. In July 1924, Julian intended to fly to Africa and become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. He dubbed his airplane Ethiopia I and began raising funds for this historic flight. However, his plane crashed into the water off Flushing, New York, and Julian spent the next month in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

After this failure, Julian twice more tried to raise money to buy planes for a flight across the Atlantic. In 1926, he planned a flight to Liberia with backing from a West Indian subsidiary of Standard Oil, boxer Tiger Flowers, and Elks Lodges, but it never took place. In 1928, Julian sought funds for a plane to make a round trip flight to Paris. This flight had the backing of New York State Senator A. Spencer Feld, but this venture also fizzled. By this time Julian was gaining the reputation of one who made big plans but could not carry them out.

Though Julian never succeeded in flying across the Atlantic, his efforts made him an international celebrity. In 1931 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie invited Julian to that East African country for his coronation ceremonies. Julian's parachuting and flying skills so impressed Emperor Selassie that he granted him Abyssinian citizenship and bestowed on him the rank of colonel. Emperor Selassie expressed interest in organizing an air force with which Julian could assist. This proved prescient, for when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Julian was in charge of the air force, which at that time comprised three planes. However, after getting into a fist fight with Chicago pilot John C. Robinson, who was also in Ethiopia, Julian was forced to leave the country. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian air force proved to be nothing more than a minor factor in the resistance.

Between 1930 and 1935, Julian crisscrossed the United States, flying and parachute jumping. In his travels, he bridged the gap between the black aviation communities in Los Angeles and Chicago. In December of 1931 William Powell brought Julian to Los Angeles to headline an air show to be put on for the City of Los Angeles Unemployment Fund at the behest of Mayor John Porter. Julian was to parachute jump during this event, as well as fly in formation with the Five Blackbirds. According to fellow Blackbird member, Marie Dickerson Coker, Julian disappointed those in attendance, as he ended up getting lost while flying with the Five Blackbirds. (Hart, 1983)

In the 1940s, Julian was living in Harlem, where he attained a certain level of celebrity. After the United States entered World War II, Julian volunteered to train for combat with the Tuskegee Airmen but was rebuffed. He was a colorful character who wore a non-regulation colonel's uniform, though he held no rank with the United States Armed Forces and never flew in combat.

Later in his life, Julian maintained his connections to Ethiopia and Emperor Selassie. In 1974, Julian, who had settled into the rather sedate existence of running a sugar brokerage firm in New York, learned of Selassie's imprisonment during the Derg Coup by the Ethiopian military. Julian offered $1.45 million cash to the Ethiopian government to free Selassie, as Julian felt he owed his prominence and stature to Selassie. The offer was declined.

Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem, lived in the Bronx for the remainder of his life. He died quietly at the Veteran's Hospital in the Bronx on 19 February 1983.

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