Early Pioneers

Eugene Jacques Bullard
Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Jacques Bullard In August of 1917 Eugene Jacques Bullard, an American volunteer in the French army, became the first black military pilot in history and the only black pilot in World War I. Born in Columbus, Georgia on October 9, 1895, Bullard left home at the age of 11 to travel the world, and by 1913 he had settled in France as a prizefighter boxer. Bullard was sent into battle during the September 1915, Champagne Offensive where 500 infantry men began the battle and only 31 returned. Bullard himself obtained an injury to the head. Because of the massive loss, the unit disbanded and Bullard was joined with the 170th infantry, known as the "Swallows of Death" and later helped him earn the nickname of "The Black Swallow of Death". Verdun became Bullard's next battlefield, and would be where he would receive an injury that would subsequently remove him from the ground war.

While recovering, Bullard was granted with the opportunity to join the French Flying Corps, and soon earned his wings from the aviation school in the city of Tours on May 5, 1917, making him the first black pilot in history. Upon his plane he painted the words, "Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!" translated roughly to mean "All the blood that runs, is red", a testament to his belief that all men are equal, regardless of the color of their skin. For his bravery as an infantryman in combat, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre as well as other decorations, marking him a national hero of significant standing.

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman Born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children in her family. At a young age she showed promising skill in mathematics, so her mother encouraged her and set her to work as the family bookkeeper. After completing high school, Bessie decided she wanted more, and enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (a teachers college) in Langston, Oklahoma. There she learned about the Wright brothers, as well as Harriet Quimby, but unfortunately did not have enough money to continue her education. In 1915 at the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago where her brother Walter lived and became a manicurist. In 1920 her brother John, a World War I veteran, visited and told her of how the women in France were allowed to fly airplanes. With some help, Bessie set out for France in November of 1920 and in ten months completed the flying course at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme. On June 15, 1921, Bessie received her pilot's license from the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Bessie was not the first black woman (or even the only woman in her class) to receive a license from the FAI -- but she was the first American to obtain her pilot's license from the French school, and she was the first licensed female black pilot in the U.S. She became a media sensation and performed entertainment aviation shows, the first being at Curtiss Field near New York City. She had a brief hiatus in her career when she had no plane and no job, but finally found financial backing for a show in Texas, and soon became famous, earning the nickname of "Queen Bess" or "Brave Bessie". On the evening of April 30, Bessie and her mechanic-pilot took the airplane for a test run. It malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Both she and the pilot died.

Willie
Willie "Suicide" Jones

Willie "Suicide" Jones Willie Jones was born in 1915 on a farm near Leland, Mississippi. A strong-willed boy, at the age of 13 he ran away and came upon an airfield where he saw his first plane, and instantly fell in love with wanting to fly. The pilot he watched was a man named Vernon Omlie, who took Jones on as his pupil. That same afternoon, Omlie took Jones up in his plane, and instructed him carefully on how to climb out of the plane and onto the canvas wings. He was a wingwalker. From that day in 1928, his career began in stunt flying.  His name quickly became recognizable for the death-defying stunts he would perform and knew just about every big name pilot of the time. He earned his nickname from a jump in 1934, where his ripcord had become entangled in his boot laces. Unbeknownst to the crowd, he struggled to get his chute open, and with only seconds remaining, was finally able to free the parachute and land. No one saw him land, and his pilot thought he was dead. It wasn't until the next day when he rode into town to meet his pilot (whom he had to convince he was still alive) did people recognize him as the man who surely had fallen to his death.   He traveled with just about every flying circus in the United States, during which time he broke a world's record. In 1939 he performed his signature Ôdelayed-opening parachute jumping' and set a new world record.

Hurbert Fauntleroy Julian
Hurbert Fauntleroy Julian

Col. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian Col. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian Born in 1897 to the manager of a Trinidadian cocoa plantation, Julian witnessed the death of early bird Frank Boland in 1913. This crash spurred Julian to leave his island home for Canada after the end of World War I, where he would become one of the first persons of color to fly an airplane. He did so in November 1920 during a joyride with Billy Bishop. He traveled to the United States for the first time in order to patent an airplane safety device, which, if employed correctly, would shoot a parachute-like apparatus through the center of the propeller, allowing the distressed plane to float safely to the ground. After having his invention be rejected by the Glenn L. Martin Company, Julian ended up settling in Harlem, New York City, where he became a follower of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic, Jamaican-born African nationalist leader. Julian created the Lt. Julian, veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force persona, complete with fabricated uniform, in order to garner attention to himself as well as Garvey’s movement. It was in September 1922 when Julian performed his first parachute jump, quite possibly becoming the first person of color to do so. After several infamous jumps into New York City, which saw Clarence Chamberlin as his pilot, Julian was dubbed by the newspapers as “The Black Eagle of Harlem.” He would attempt three transatlantic flights before the 1920s were over, but none were successful. In the 1930s, Julian made three trips to Ethiopia, where he would parachute down to the soon-to-be-crowned Haile Selassie I (earning him the Order of Menelik and the rank of colonel), crash the monarch’s favorite plane, and, on his third excursion to the east African nation, take command of a unit of soldiers in an attempt to drive off the fascist Italian invasion. He also appeared alongside William Powell’s Five Blackbirds, which performed airshows across the U.S. In 1940 he sailed to northern Europe, in the aftermath of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, where he and many other foreign volunteers would help the Finns do their best to regroup and rebuild. Once the U.S. entered into World War II, Julian enlisted, earning his American citizenship, but never seeing combat. He was honorably discharged after less than a year (he was over 40 years old at this point) and spent the remaining war years working at the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run aircraft plant. His post-war life saw him become an arms dealer, doing business with the Arbenz government of Guatemala, the Bautista regime of Cuba, and the Moise Tshombe, the leader of the Katangan secessionist government of the former Belgian Congo. This third foray in arms dealing saw Julian locked up by United Nations peacekeepers for three months before releasing him. It was then, in the early 1960s, when Julian decided it was time to retire. He would pass away in early 1983.  Biography from Dr. William J. Tooma Instructor of English, Essex County College]

William J. Powell
William J. Powell

William J. PowellWilliam J. Powell was born in Kentucky on July 27, 1897 and his family moved to Chicago where he attended school. He was accepted into the University of Illinois Engineering Program, though his studies were put on hold when World War I broke out. During the war he served in the racially segregated 370th Illinois Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant, and while serving in France, suffered health issues after surviving a poison gas attack. He went on to finish his studies and became very interested in becoming a pilot. He applied to numerous aviation schools, but was continuously rejected from all area flight schools, and even the Army Air Corps, because of his race. Finally, in 1928, he was accepted into the Los Angeles School of Flight. In four years he was licensed not only as a pilot, but as a navigator and an aeronautical engineer. As a tribute to Bessie Coleman, the first licensed Black female aviator, he started the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929, and the Bessie Coleman Flying School in Los Angeles, both of which focused on promoting aviation in the African American community. He firmly believed that African-Americans should be as involved in aviation as possible, and spent much of his life attributing to this cause. Powell published Black Wings in 1934. Dedicated to Bessie Coleman, the book encouraged black men and women "to fill the air with black wings." A visionary supporter of aviation, Powell urged black youth to carve out their own destinyÑto become pilots, aircraft designers, and business leaders in the field of aviation.

James Herman Banning
James Herman Banning

James Herman BanningJames Herman Banning was born in Oklahoma in 1899. He attended Iowa State College, studying electrical engineering and then set his sights on flying. He learned to fly at Raymond Fisher's Flying Field in Des Moines, Iowa, after being turned away from countless flying schools because of race, and became the first black aviator to obtain a license from the U. S. Dept. of Commerce.  Banning then moved to Los Angeles as the chief pilot for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, where he then taught others how to fly. In 1932, he and mechanic Thomas Allen set out to be the first black pilot to fly across America. Their airplane was one that had debuted six years before their flight, so Banning and Allen rebuilt the engine to bring it up to their standards. The duo set out without enough money for gas and oil, calling themselves the "Flying Hobos". Money had to be raised at nearly every stop in order to get oil and gas to continue their flight, making the trip a 21-day venture. However, after 41 hours and 27 minutes in the air, the two had successfully completed their transcontinental flight, becoming the first black aviators to accomplish this feat.   Banning's name was greatly recognizable afterward, and his success brought him to fly at an exhibition in San Diego, California. A Navy pilot offered to fly Banning over from Lindbergh field to check the gathering crowd. There, the pilot decided to show off for his now famous passenger and pulled into a steep climb from near ground level in front of the stands. The plane stalled, couldn't recover, and crashed, killing both the pilot and Banning. 

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