Remember being forced to sit in history class in high school?
Oh, sure you learned a thing or two. You learned a bunch of stuffy facts that are now lost in the dusty attic of your brain. You learned that the classroom window is a great place to look while wishing you could fly away somewhere.
So how about learning something about people who really did fly - home, across the ocean, and in space. Read “Black Wings” (c.2008, Smithsonian / Collins, $21.95 / $25.95 Canada, 180 pages) by Von Hardesty, and give the past some real air time.
Just over 100 years ago, a revolution occurred when the Wright brothers went airborne. Instantly, flying was seen as daring and adventurous, and people flocked to try it. Unfortunately, Jim Crow laws were in effect at that same time, which meant that most African Americans were barred from participating.
But that didn’t stop Chicagoan Bessie Coleman. In 1920, Coleman traveled to France for a “coveted prize": a pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. The FAI required study and lots of tests, but Coleman achieved her goal, making her the first African American woman to gain the license.
During the Depression, Hardesty says flight training was hard to organize, and often cost-prohibitive but all-black flying clubs, air shows, and teaching opportunities were still available. Early black fliers, wishing to bust past segregation, saw record-breaking as a way to bring attention to their skills. Transcontinental flights and continent-hopping were tried and achieved.
When World War II broke out, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, then head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, spoke out in favor of integrating African Americans into American armed forces. HBCUs offered the Civil Pilot Training Program. Finally, in 1941, the Tuskegee Army Air Base was established, with thirteen cadets in its first class. But segregation didn’t end when the war did, although black pilots continued to make inroads in the military. They also continued reaching many “firsts”, including one that was literally out of this world: in 1983, Guy Bluford became the first African American to travel in space.
I have to admit, I was really excited at the prospect of reading this book. I figured it would be loaded with pictures and lots of thrilling stories.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Although “Black Wings” sometimes tends to bounce around in its timeline, author Von Hardesty does a great job at presenting an overview of the history of aviation as seen through African American experiences. I liked learning about early pioneers, contributions of women aviatrixes, and their continuing influences. Some of the stories, in fact, made me wish I could fly back in time to watch barnstormers in action. And - just as I expected - I loved seeing the archival photographs.
If you’re a historian, an aviation aficionado, or if you’re looking for something great to enjoy during Black History Month, “Black Wings” should be a book to fly out and get. Its stories will have you on the edge of your seat that can be used as a flotation device in the event of an emergency.