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VA History Highlights

African American Trailblazers in Aviation

After years of trying, the Wright brothers' successful flight in 1903 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina proved that man could conquer the skies and a new world of possibilities was launched. At least for most people.

Seven years earlier, in 1896, the same year that the Wright brother first began their experiments, the U.S. Supreme court case known Plessy v. Ferguson established a "separate, but equal" racially segregated society in the U.S. This came to be known as "Jim Crow." Because of "Jim Crow," African Americans were initially shut out of the new world of aviation, especially in the South, but a few strong-willed individuals persisted and worked around the system. They found ways to become pilots, creating opportunities for themselves and others, despite the great odds against them.

Historical photo of Emory Malick in an airplane.Emory Malick (right) was the first African American in the U.S. to receive a pilot's license in 1912. He was a skilled Pennsylvania Railroad carpenter who experimented with building his own glider before learning to fly at the Curtiss Aviation School in San Diego.

In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American female aviator to obtain a pilot's license. She qualified for an international pilot's license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, making her the first in the U.S., as well. She was very popular on the barnstorming circuit and died while doing what she loved in 1926.

International pilot's license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale

During the 1930s, while war escalated in Europe, several African American pilots, including Col. John C. Robinson and Col. Hubert Julian, served as pilots for other countries since there were no flying opportunities for them in the U.S. military.

In 1937, the 3,000 mile Chicago-to-DC goodwill flight of Dale White and Chauncey Spencer, both pilots from the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, called attention to the skill of African American pilots. They met with several senators while in DC and are believed to have influenced their decision to authorize the first-ever training of African American pilots for the U.S. military at Tuskegee during World War II.

That same year, in 1937, Willa Brown became the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot's license. African American women pilots, despite their skill and willingness, were denied opportunities to fly for the military or the civilian Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II.

In 1940, Congress announced plans to develop some African American troops for aviation service. They established the program at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941 with 32 white enlisted instructors. The Army Air School provided pilot, navigation, maintenance, and other training. The Tuskegee flyers served in segregated units and were called "Lonely Eagles" as they were destined, at the time, to fly and fight separately from the rest of the Air Forces, if at all. They started with just a few pilots, but the program's success fueled its quick growth. They proved themselves in battle during the war, earning them the respect of their white peers, and forging a new path for others to follow.

Since implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opportunities for African Americans interested in aerospace careers has grown. In 1956 Perry Young, Jr., a former flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, became the first black pilot for a commercial airline. In 1967 Major Robert H. Lawrence became the first African American astronaut, but he never made it to space. In 1974 Captain Lloyd Newton became the first black pilot to join the elite U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and in 1978 Jill E. Brown became the first African American female pilot for a commercial airline.

NASA portrait of Guion Bluford.In 1983, four years after first becoming an astronaut, Guion "Guy" Bluford, Jr. (photo, left) became the first African American astronaut to enter space. He flew on several shuttle missions, including the Discovery, which is now housed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles, Virginia. Mae C. Jemison, who, as a child dreamed of going into space, became the first female astronaut in 1988 and the first to enter space in 1992.

All female African American flight crew standing on the steps of a plane.African Americans continue to break down old barriers and make history every day—in both the civilian and military sectors: on February 12, 2009, the first flight operated by an all-female African American flight crew flew Delta Connection Flight 5202 between Atlanta and Nashville (photo); and just last week Merryl Tengesdal, the only black female pilot of the U-2 spy aircraft, was promoted to Lt. Col.

Prepared by Darlene Richardson, Historian, Veterans Health Administration

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Emory Malick

Bessie Coleman

Willa Brown

Dale White-Chauncey Spencer fligh

Tuskegee Airmen

Joseph Hairston

Guion Bluford

Dr. Mae Jemison

Vernice Armour, 1st African American female fighter pilot

Maj. Shawna R. Kimbrell, first African American female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force

Lt.Col. Merryl Tengesdal

First All-African American Female Flight Crew