The intrepid ‘Black Eagle,’ Hubert Julian

Herb Boyd | 10/23/2014, 5:06 p.m.
Last week, we presented the fascinating story of Bessie Coleman, a pioneering pilot who soared through the sky in the ...
Hubert Julian about to take off; Hubert Julian landing as a passenger

Last week, we presented the fascinating story of Bessie Coleman, a pioneering pilot who soared through the sky in the early 1920s as few Black or white, male or female pilots did. If she had an equivalent of color during those early days of flight, it was Hubert Julian, whose daring feats may have been even more incredible, if not foolhardy.

Christened Hubert Fauntleroy Julian in Trinidad Sept. 20, 1897, his middle name should have been “flamboyant” because almost from the beginning of his highly adventurous life, Julian had a flair for fashion and fanfare, an instinct for the historic moment and how to exploit it for his own purposes.

Ironically, Julian was attracted to the world of aviation and the quest to be a pilot from a horrific plane crash he witnessed in Trinidad when he was only 12. He was among a crowd of spectators at the Grand Stand at Queen’s Park Savannah, a spacious park-like section of Port of Spain, to watch the first airplane flight in the West Indies. Even before the pilots took off, Julian was nearby to see how they dressed and to observe the last-minute adjustments of the plane before takeoff.

The plane, according to John Lakesmith of the Negro Airmen International, “soared into the air … circled the field twice. Suddenly, the engine caught fire and the plane plunged to the ground. The pilot was dead.” It was a tragic moment but one that ignited Julian’s interest and spurred his ambitions to become a pilot. To this end, he consumed books, magazines and newspaper articles on everything to do with flying.

His parents did not entertainment the same enthusiasm about flying and supported his efforts to attend medical school in England and Canada. But after a long series of discussions, they relented and allowed him to pursue his passion to fly. He returned to Montreal, where he had begun studying medicine, to haunt the airfields, pestering pilots and mechanics about planes and how he could become a pilot. Most of them were very patient and appreciated his interest, lending him instruction books and technical manuals.

One day, Julian was at the airfield when he was approached by Billy Bishop, Canada’s first air marshall. “Can you fly?” Bishop asked Julian. He told him he could not. “Can you drive a car?” he asked further. Julian said he could. “Well, I’ll teach you to fly.” And that was the beginning of Julian’s career in flight.

Despite pleas from his father not to visit America because of the rampant racism, the usually defiant Julian disobeyed, and by 1921, he was in Harlem, consorting with a number of other West Indians. This was during the time when Marcus Garvey, a man of equal flamboyance and notoriety, was the talk of the town. Garvey naturally drew the attention of the ever-curious Julian.

When Garvey informed him of an upcoming Universal Negro Improvement Association convention at the organization’s Liberty Hall in Harlem, Julian decided to introduce himself to the community in grand style. “Just as delegates were crowding into Liberty Hall,” Lakesmith wrote, “Julian swooped down over the building in a rented airplane. Airplanes were still a novelty, and the sight of one would make boys stop with excitement. No one except Garvey knew who was at the controls of the plane.”