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.”
Back on the ground, Garvey formally introduced Julian to the convention delegates, telling them that Julian was doing something to prove that Black people can do what white people do if given the chance. “He is the first Negro in America or in the British Isles or commonwealth to qualify as a pilot, and his example should inspire us,” Garvey noted.
Dressed in jodhpurs, his goggles resting on his leather helmet, a scarf swirled around his neck, Julian soaked up the moment and was soon the toast of the town, his manner and bravado only endearing him more to the young men who wondered if they too could fly. It should be noted that by this time, Bessie Coleman was making her mark in France and would soon achieve certain milestones as an aviatrix.
Julian’s next stunt was even more daring. He made preparations to parachute at an airshow. His first jump almost cost him his life both in the air when he was tossed suddenly from the plane and on the ground when he landed on a farmer’s chicken shack in Nassau County. After securing sponsors, Julian planned a second jump, this one over Harlem, with an aim to land on a vacant lot between Seventh and Eighth avenues and 139th and 140th streets, near what today is known as Striver’s Row. To pay his pilot, the extraordinary Clarence Chamberlain, who had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, Julian cut a deal with a mortician to pay the $100 fee to Chamberlain for the rights to display Julian’s body if he died from the fall.
He was not a casualty, but he missed his target by a block or two, landing safely but dazed atop the U.S. Post Office on 140th Street. The crowd followed his entire leap and rushed to where he had landed, waiting for him to descend from the building before hoisting him on their shoulders and carrying him triumphantly to Liberty Hall. It was a grand celebration and just another exhilarating moment in Julian’s life, which was to become even more perilous.
In 1924, Julian, now called “The Black Eagle” for his daredevil flights and leaps, began gathering the funds for the first solo flight to Africa. It was solo all right, so low that he crashed into Flushing Bay after only five minutes in the air. Luckily, a man saw him crash and fished him from the bay. He had dislocated his shoulders, his body was bruised all over and his leg was in a cast.
For his next event, Julian, undaunted as ever, did not have to go looking for sponsors—one came to him: In 1930, the soon-to-be-crowned Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia wanted him to fly at his coronation. In preparation for the event, Julian arrived in Ethiopia and demonstrated his ability to fly and parachute, successfully landing within a few yards of the royal tent. Selassie was so impressed that he promoted him to colonel and asked him to be his personal pilot. He would perform the same function later for Father Divine.
His flight at the coronation was a disaster when his plane crashed in a tree, reducing the Ethiopian air force by a third. Even so, he survived and retained his position with the emperor, though Julian knew it was time to get back to Harlem. For the next four years in Harlem, he was busy with a number of projects, including hosting events, speaking at seminars and escorting notables, none more significant than the wife of Marcus Garvey during a business trip to Ghana.
But in 1935, Ethiopia was again calling, and this time it was serious. A second war with Italy was looming. This time he was asked to train Ethiopian pilots to fight the invading Italians, but the air force had only four planes, so Julian began training an essentially ragtag infantry. With the rank of colonel, he began assembling a fighting force, drilling them on tactics and preparing them for warfare many of them had never seen.
“When they finally reached the battleground, 400 miles to the north, by forced night marches of 25 miles, conditions had become chaotic. There was little mechanized transport. Food, ammunition and water were in perilously short supply. The badly trained troops were dazed and disorganized. They had never before encountered strafing, bombing or the sound of heavy artillery. Many had already fled in panic. Others, finding their guns useless, had discarded them,” John Peer Nugent wrote in his biography of the man.
The Black Eagle was lucky to survive the fiasco in Ethiopia and make it unharmed back to Harlem, where the war effort was underway after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He quickly stepped up his plans to establish a military headquarters at the Hotel Theresa. A quick, innovative thinker, it didn’t take Julian long to draft his first official communique: “In view of the present crisis, I am recruiting a group of young Negroes to be known as ‘The Suicide Squadron,’ and they’re going to be examined by Negro physicians here in Harlem without any cost to the government.”
He further noted that he would be personally responsible for training the men in parachute jumping, which, if nothing else, suggested the futility of the enterprise. But like his adventures in Ethiopia, this one too went awry and his “Suicide Squadron” was rejected by Washington. However, Julian himself was not rejected once he volunteered for the Army, though it must have been a blow to his enormous ego to enter the ranks as a buck private, a far cry from the prestige he had garnered as a personal advisor to the emperor of Ethiopia.
Part two is next week.