Hubert Julian (100500)

Last week, we embarked on the life and legacy of Hubert “The Black Eagle” Julian. We began by reviewing some of his daring feats and his audacious and flamboyant odyssey. It would be a fascinating biopic, one with thrilling adventures in Africa, Europe and the Diaspora.

In the first installment, we had arrived just as things were heating up in Europe, and Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Julian’s attempt to raise a “Suicide Squadron” was rejected by the U.S. military, but he was accepted as a volunteer and, much to his chagrin, the proud colonel was reduced to a buck private.

Although he achieved the rank of private first class, the Army was clearly a poor fit for a man used to calling his own shots. After he mustered out in 1942, he acquired his U.S. citizenship and swore he had worn his final uniform of any sort.

His next attire was a three-piece suit, topped off with a derby hat or bowler, and by the late 1940s, he was heading his own fleet of DC-3 cargo planes. But given the level of competition, the business didn’t do so well, and the former soldier of fortune became involved in a project to amass stale cigarettes and make them available to military personnel. That venture too went awry, but during the process of attempting to sell the stale cigarettes—which turned out not be so stale after all—he established a number of important contacts, particularly in the upper echelons of the government.

Soon, given his ability to open bureaucratic doors and cut through red tape, Julian was sought out by several import-export firms. At 52, he was still in excellent health and obviously had lost none of his swagger and exuberance as he boarded a ship to Europe, mainly to hobnob and impress upon other travelers his ability to charm and his talent to amuse. Aboard, he met the rich and famous, many of whom were intrigued by this Black man who was a fast talker in several languages and who could do card tricks blindfolded. He knew exactly how to gather a crowd and mesmerize them, leaving them in a state of awe.

This same bravado was apparent when he arrived in Amsterdam. The Dutch, concerned about its holdings in the colonies, quickly retained his services because they had been told of his international and White House connections. From Holland, he was dispatched to Batavia, now Jakarta, where he met with rebel leader Sukarno, who convinced him that he was on the wrong side and that he would be better off helping their revolutionary cause. A few months after his visit, Sukarno and his forces gained their independence from the Dutch in 1949, thereby creating the Republic of Indonesia.

The lesson of all this for Julian was the possibility of becoming an arms dealer. Back in Harlem, he founded Black Eagle Enterprise. With chaos and turmoil brewing in Central America, Julian’s instincts concluded that it the place to be to transact sales of materiel. He was in Guatemala when the battles between rivals broke out, and Julian waited to see who the victor was before inserting himself in the picture. When the smoke cleared, he boldly walked right into the middle of a gathering of new government leaders, sat at the grand piano and extended his full repertoire of songs before announcing who he was and what he could mean to the new government.

“Shut up loud mouth!” one of the attendees shouted, challenging Julian to present his credentials.

Without hesitating, Julian retrieved his briefcase and pulled out a photo of himself posing with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This was another command performance, and it was witnessed by the revolutionary leader Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. He realized that Julian could facilitate the upgrading of his weaponry.

His next move was to make contact with suppliers of the armaments. That meant a trip to Europe, which he conducted knowing that his client, the Guatemalan government, would foot the bill. On his return trip to America by boat, he was fortunate to meet the great diplomat Ralph Bunche, who, at that time, was deeply involved in the Middle East crisis. Bunche was among the passengers amazed to see this Black man boarding the ship with a pile of luggage and dressed in the finest of garments. Later, when Bunche complained about the laundering of his shirts, Julian had a stack of them delivered to his cabin. “Courtesy of the Black Eagle,” the attendant told Bunche.

After Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala, business for Julian accelerated, and soon his office in Harlem was overwhelmed with offers from potential clients. Profits, too, increased, and by the end of 1950, he had amassed $100,000 in profits, all the while sailing across the Atlantic and accumulating more contacts for arms.

But things were too good to be true. When Arbenz heard of the profits Julian had made through his supply of armaments to his government, he was appalled. Within days, Julian was fired, thus ending a very lucrative relationship.

“One day I will fly back to Guatemala in a jet plane at 600 miles an hour,” Julian promised. “My friends had better paint their roofs black as identification against the bombing and revenge of the Black Eagle.”

Faced with a pressing attack from opposition forces aided by the CIA, Arbenz had no choice but to rehire Julian to get the proper shells for the anti-aircraft guns he had procured. It took weeks of maneuvering by Julian to finally get the shells to Guatemala, most of the problems occurring because of the mounting Cold War and the McCarthy witch hunts looking for anybody affiliated with communists. Of course, Arbenz’s government was perceived as a haven for communists.

When the shells finally arrived, it was too late. The forces led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas had overthrown the Arbenz government, causing Arbenz to he flee to Mexico with Che Guevara.

Julian’s prestige and business were also imperiled, and his only recourse was a telegram to Armas stating that he was willing to supply him with arms, but Armas said there was already plenty of weapons available.

As an arms salesman, Julian played no favorites. Whoever had the money and was willing to pay would be served. It made little difference to him whether it was Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti or Batista in Cuba, who, in fact, would be his next biggest client. His business grew even larger by 1958, when the U.S. stopped supplying Batista.

Part three is next week.