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Storming the Heavens Book Page

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ABOUT STORMING THE HEAVENS

In Storming the Heavens, Gerald Horne presents the early struggle of African-Americans to gain the right to fly.  This struggle involved pioneers like Bessie Coleman, who traveled to World War I era Paris in order to gain piloting skills that she was denied in her U.S. homeland; and John Robinson, from Chicago via Mississippi, who traveled to 1930s Ethiopia where he was the leading pilot for this beleaguered African nation as it withstood an invasion from fascist Italy, became the personal pilot of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie and became a founder of Ethiopian Airways, which to this very day is Africa's most important carrier.  Additionally, Horne adds nuance to the oft told tale of the Tuskegee Airmen but goes further to discuss the role of U.S. pilots during the Korean war in the early 1950s.  He also tells the story of how and why U.S. airlines were fought when they began to fly into South Africa—and how planes from this land of apartheid were protested when they landed at U.S. airports.  

This riveting story climaxes with the launching of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 which marked a new stage in the battle for aerospace and helps to convince the U.S. that the centuries-long fixation on the "race race" was hampering the new challenge represented by the "space race." This conflict was unfolding as the battle to desegregate public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas was spotlighting, globally, the bleeding wound that was Jim Crow and sheds light on how and why depriving African-Americans of skills and education was causing the nation to fall behind.   Thus, in this embattled context, barriers are broken and African-Americans who once endured inferior conditions on planes and in airports and in airport manufacturing facilities alike, gained added impetus in their decades long struggle to win the right to fly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, GERALD HORNE

Dr. Gerald Horne’s research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. He received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. Dr. Horne’s undergraduate courses include the Civil Rights Movement an U.S. History through Film. He also teaches graduate courses in Diplomatic History, Labor History and 20th Century African American History. Dr. Horne is the author of more than thirty books.

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FROM THE BOOK

One minute, John Robinson was soaring through the skies of Ethiopia. The next, his hopes for surviving were plummeting precipitously. 

It was late 1935, and this southern-born son of Black Chicago had chosen to take his immense piloting skills to Addis Ababa to assist the beleaguered regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I, His Imperial Majesty, the Conquering Lion of Judah, in foiling a brutal invasion by Benito Mussolini’s Italian legions. Soon, Il Duce’s incursion came to be viewed as a harbinger of what was to be termed World War II.

Robinson had just departed from the city of Adowa in northern Ethiopia after it was bombarded twice. He was en route to Addis Ababa with some important papers when two Italian airplanes attacked him. As he noted later in a dispatch to the Associated Negro Press, the agency that had sponsored his volunteer journey: “[The] Italians started shooting. I will never forget that day and the day after….I really had the closest call I have ever had,” he added with relief, “One part of the wing on the airplane I was flying had ten holes when I landed.”

The man known as Colonel John Robinson of the Imperiale Ethiopenne Air Force was only one example of African Americans’ extraordinary interest and involvement in aviation years before the 1957 launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. In his case, Ethiopia and Emperor Selassie were the beneficiaries of that attention. Whenever Selassie had important documents to dispatch speedily to his generals or when he himself wished to travel by air, Colonel Robinson, and he alone, was given that position of trust. Robinson could well be considered one of the founders of Ethiopian Airways—a carrier that, by 2015, was deemed to be perhaps the best and most reliable airline on the continent and, as one periodical stated, “the main generator of foreign exchange” in this sprawling East African nation.

African Americans’ early interest in aviation reflected a longing for modernity and cosmopolitanism, especially since, as one analyst maintained, “Afro-diasporic people,” to their painful detriment, “have been popularly constructed as backward and anti-technology”. Though Wilbur and Orville Wright have been credited widely for the invention of the airplane in 1903, a Negro, Thomas Crump of Fisk University, invented a flying contraption as early as 1889. A Negro by the name of John Pickering reportedly developed an “airship” around 1900. The Negro inventor W. F. Johnson conceived the idea of an electrically powered biplane as early as 1910 while another Negro, William Polite, patented an anti-aircraft gun in 1917—taking time away from his day job as headwaiter at a hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina.
These Black inventors were not alone in this quest. One writer credits the Wright Brothers’ relationship to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar with helping to spark early Negro interest in aviation. This fascination with aviation was also viewed as evidence of an enlightened self-interest on the part of Negroes in that airplanes were widely viewed early on as the “winning weapon” and yet another tool to be deployed to subjugate African Americans and their colonized cousins in Africa and the Caribbean. The better part of wisdom dictated that Blacks learn more about flying. The airplane fed militarism and allied conservatism, which in turn buoyed a closely related colonial mentality and Negro-phobia.

As early as 1906, Sir Hiram Maxim—whose invention of a fully automatic machine gun had won him pride of place among colonialists—acknowledged the “potency” of aviation “as an instrument of warfare.” He added ominously that “it behooves all the civilized nations of the earth to lose no time in becoming acquainted with this new means of attack and defence.” Lord Robert Baden–Powell, a leading British colonialist in Africa, concurred in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers illustrated the value of flight, that London was “in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations”—namely, aviation.

That same year, when the prolific and progressive H. G. Wells chose to novelize aviation in The War of the Air, he opted not to avoid the odiousness of the “Yellow Peril concept,” suggesting a close tie between white supremacy and the new era of flight. This poisonous discourse did not escape the attention of African Americans. The twin towers of oppression—slavery and Jim Crow—had long confined them on slave ships, plantations, jails, and neighborhoods. However, the forces of production in U.S. society began to erode this shackling and racist social relationship. The advent of steamships and railroads, and later airplanes, provided people of African descent with a motorized escape from their Earth-bound oppression. This conflict between social relations and productive forces induced strains within the system of iniquity—Jim Crow in particular—causing it to buckle as African Americans deployed these forces to their benefit.

* * *

In 1939, the then-reigning celebrity, Paul Robeson, beamed proudly that his son was “already interested in aviation engineering” and that he had bundled him off to Moscow for flight training. Robeson cautioned astutely that one could only imagine “what a chance a Negro aviation engineer would have in the United States or in England.” Tellingly, just before the Moscow’s launching of the Sputnik satellite into outer space in 1957, another Negro pilot, 26-year-old Howard B. Spears Jr., who had flown earlier for the U.S., applied for Soviet citizenship because, as he said, “I want to be treated like a human being” and he was disgusted with lingering Jim Crow.

The U.S. would be compelled to take halting steps away from Jim Crow, not least because of the national security implications exposed by Spears’ defection. Indeed, the departure of Robinson and others to far-flung global sites was a resonant symbol of the leakage of talent that represented a leakage of national security that conceivably could be quite harmful to Washington. Assuredly, the ease of traveling to Moscow from the Americas, instigated by aviation, was a signal factor in the erosion of Jim Crow. As aviation helped to break the boundaries of segregation and second-class citizenship, the U.S. was compelled to adjust accordingly.

A similar process was unfolding in colonized Africa. By the 1920s, as a direct result of aviation developments and African Americans’ concomitant mastery of this new technology, a riveting notion took hold in southern Africa: that a liberating air force of U.S. Negroes would descend on that benighted region and eviscerate colonialism as pilots dropped balls of burning charcoal upon the colonizers. The fear that the airplane could become a tool of liberation soon became a reality.

Like Jim Crow, colonialism and apartheid were designed to confine Black bodies, but confinement hardly defined the reality experienced by Alex La Guma, a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party. Writing from London in 1973, La Guma informed his leadership in Tanzania that “while in Moscow, having just departed Cairo,” he received a message from Helsinki asking him to participate in a meeting in Hanoi. It was an invitation he quickly accepted, then jetted off to Vietnam to forge an important alliance.

If the steady advancement in air transportation technology could facilitate the ability of the colonized to leapfrog their confinement and mobilize across borders, the colonizers feared that aviation could also operate to the detriment of apartheid and colonialism in other ways. The ANC paid close attention when, in the dying days of apartheid, South African Airways was compelled to end flights to the U.S. It later was denied permission to enter a good deal of African airspace. Both demarches hastened the suffocating isolation and subsequent demise of the Pretoria regime.

* * *

Of course, just as fire tempers steel for construction on one hand while fomenting destruction on the other, aviation too could be harnessed in malignant fashion. The Nazi chief of the Air Staff in Berlin, General Karl Koller, argued passionately for the eminence of aviation for his diabolical government. In words deemed worthy of retention by U.S. General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and former Director of Central Intelligence, Koller proclaimed: 


“Everything depends on air supremacy, everything else must take second place. The supremacy of the sea is only an appendage of air supremacy [since] the country that has air supremacy and vigorously strengthens its air power over all other forms of armament to maintain its supremacy, will rule the lands and the seas, will rule the world.”

Koller further stated that “all plans for the defense of a country, a continent or a sphere of interest or for offensive operations must be in the hands of the Air Force Command.” In any case, he reasoned, “naval officers will rarely, and army officers almost never, be able to keep pace with the large-scale thoughts and wide horizon which the men of all air forces in the world have more or less acquired.”

Understandably, U.S. Negroes were hardly indifferent to this Nazi’s way of thinking. When the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was bombed from the air in a racist pogrom in 1921, many Blacks came to believe that their very survival depended on the study of aviation becoming a priority. James Peck, an African American pilot lent his aviation skills to the besieged republic of Spain when that nation came under fire in the late 1930s. He summed up the gathering consensus among Blacks in the U.S. thusly: “[T]he advent of airpower has changed the world’s conception of military strategy in general and U.S. defense in particular—all of which most certainly affects the darker citizenry.”

The U.S. Negro press was likewise alert when the then-avatar of aviation, Charles Lindbergh, was said to have declared in late 1939 that “if the white race is ever seriously threatened, it then may be time for us to take our part in its protection, to fight side by side” with Europe against its numerous colonized subjects. “But not,” Lindbergh added, “with one against the other for our mutual destruction.” This attitude, according to the moderate Negro journalist Gordon Hancock, made “Lucky Lindy” one of “Hitler’s stooges.”

The prevalence of lynch laws in the United States—yet another weapon in the arsenal of racism deployed against African Americans—meant that Lindbergh’s rancidness could not be ignored easily. Indeed, those sentiments heightened the need to counteract the advantage in the skies held by those who shared Lindbergh’s views.

Negro pilot Chauncey Spencer, who fought alongside U.S. forces during World War II, seemed to take Lucky Lindy’s words as a personal affront. He threw down the gauntlet, angrily assessing the celebrity’s idea that flying was “one of those priceless possessions which permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black and Brown” and thus “a tool especially shaped by western hands.” Spencer knew well that this wrongheaded notion was not Lindbergh’s alone. “[T]he public’s attitude,” he added, was also “extremely hostile to Negro flyers.” Indeed, the very existence of Black aviators contradicted the prevailing notion of Black people’s inherent ineptitude while adumbrating the belief that the plane, as a weapon of war, could be turned sharply against white supremacy.

Another apparent connection between aviation and retrograde attitudes occurred when Lindbergh’s aviator peer—the pilot Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker—was hailed by the fascist Gerald L. K. Smith and denounced by union leader Walter Reuther for his questionable political leanings. Rickenbacker and Lindbergh exemplified the once-prevalent idea that enthusiasm for aviation and fascism were linked tightly. Aviators reportedly formed a disproportionate component of the British Union of Fascists. Unsurprisingly, the leading African American intellectual Alain Locke predicted in 1940 that the U.S. “will no doubt pass through a brief period of fascism in the near future,” an opinion he did not connect to the ascendancy of aviation. That connection, however, was made by others—Lindbergh, for example—who foresaw the rising tide of fascism and colonialism as part and parcel of the ascendancy of aviation as the so-called winning weapon.

* * *

The idea of flight had captivated the human imagination for centuries before materializing in the early 20th century. Thereafter, this captivation accelerated rapidly, with some in the U.S. coming to view the plane as a kind of messiah, perhaps because it penetrated the heavens where a deity was believed to reside. After Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, an elderly Negro woman reportedly asked him, in all apparent seriousness, how much he would charge her to fly her to heaven and leave her there.


The idea of escaping an earthbound hell occurred to numerous people of African descent. Johnny Griffin (1928–2008)—a leading jazz tenor saxophonist who just happened to be a Negro—offered a cosmically grounded philosophy to explain Black people’s desire to transcend their earthly plight in America and elsewhere:


“…the main thing is I’m here because I did something wrong on my planet. I’m not really from this planet. I did something wrong on my planet and they sent me here to pay my dues. I figure pretty soon my [dues] will be paid and they’re going to call me home so I can rest in peace….I can’t be from this place [for] there is no love here and I love people. All I see is hate around me…..that’s what’s wrong with the earth today. Black and white on this planet, there is no love, there is only hate.”

Strikingly, this desire to transcend was reflected in the work of other musicians most notably Sun Ra, who was raised in the hellhole that was Birmingham, Alabama, during the height of Jim Crow.

Proponents of the contemporary Afro-Futurist movement, in refiguring the metaphoric rendering of the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as akin to an alien abduction, have also alluded to Black people’s long history of looking upward to the sky for salvation and inspiration. This reflection on cosmology is rooted distantly in African conceptions of the cosmos. Thus, Afro-Baptist hymns and sermons posit an awareness of one’s place in the cosmos and the possibility of spiritual travel within it—an awareness transferable not only to music but also to an interest in flight.

Others saw flight as an instrument of reform, regeneration, and salvation—as a substitute for politics, revolution, or even religion. “Aerial liberation through flight” was more than a slogan for certain women, who argued that flying served to spur, if not reinforce, their confidence and independence. A similar feeling arose among American Negroes. Not to be discounted in determining why Blacks were attracted early to aviation was the sense of liberation provided when soaring above the clouds. Moreover, flying reinforced and enhanced the historic tendency of African Americans to engage in flight from atrocious conditions. Entering the cockpit and taking off into the clouds helped to bolster the idea that by so ascending, the depravity of the oppression that too often characterized the facts on the ground were left behind.

Perhaps because of her dual identity as a Negro and a woman, Willa Brown came to be pre-eminent in introducing aviation to African Americans. Brown’s ascendancy was steeper than that of most in that she co-founded, with Cornelius Coffey, what was then the “largest privately owned Negro aviation school in the country”: the Coffey School of Aeronautics. So renowned was she for her aviation accomplishments that in November 1941, Enoch Waters of the Chicago-based National Airmen’s Association of America sought to nominate her for the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As Waters maintained in his nomination statement, Brown, “more than any other single individual [is] responsible for the present interest of Negroes in aviation.” This was quite an accolade since Black women typically faced a kind of double jeopardy with regard to flight and aviation. As of 1929, when the first Women’s Air Derby was held, only 34 of the reported 4,690 licensed pilots in the U.S. were women. Some men mocked their inaugural aerial competition, dubbing it the “Powder Puff Derby.”

Similarly, Black women were not welcomed at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, where a generation of Negro pilots were being trained there to support the U.S. war effort in the 1940s. In 1942, Janet Harmon Bragg, the first Negro woman to earn a full commercial pilot’s license, was turned down by Tuskegee Institute’s pilot training program, even though she passed the airborne part of the test, presumably because she was a woman. During World War II she was turned down again—apparently because she was a Negro—when she sought to join the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, which ferried equipment for the military. Born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1912, Bragg had bought her own plane by the 1930s. She later became president of the Challenger Air Pilots, a group of ebony aviators.

But before Brown and Bragg, there was Bessie Coleman. Generally acknowledged as the first person of African descent worldwide to become a licensed pilot, Coleman achieved this feat by fleeing the U.S. for France in late 1920 to receive flight training. There, she walked nine miles a day for ten months to and from flight school. Coleman’s trailblazing accomplishments were later cited as the source of Willa Brown’s inspiration and aspirations to fly.

Despite the demonstrated competence of Brown, Bragg, and Coleman, a reporter observed in early 1940 that “female students have not been accepted in some of the Negro institutions authorized by the government to teach aeronautics to colored students.” “In one large university,” the reporter continued, “the girls flocked to the class seeking admission [but] they were gently turned away.” At a 1949 ceremony honoring the disappearance of the now-celebrated Euro-American pilot Amelia Earhart, a Negro journalist lamented that no similar efforts had been made to preserve the names of Coleman and other ebony pioneers of her gender. According to his article, there were “only 37 Negro women in the air transportation industry in 1940,” and by 1949 there were “at least 50 Negro women aviators [yet] it was disappointing that none of them were invited to the Earhart celebration.”

* * *

The immensity of the horror that was Jim Crow inexorably caused some African Americans to consider drastic remedies, many of which led to musings unmoored by earthly forces. Thus, the man with his feet firmly planted on terra firma, W. E. B. Du Bois, mused that the problems of Negroes worldwide were so deeply and historically entrenched that the eradication of their miseries could be imagined only through the intervention of a catastrophic natural force—on the cosmic level, no less. Just as indigenous South Africans figured correctly that the invention of flying machines would have profound implications for their plight, a similar trend proved to be the case for African Americans. The advancement of the productive forces reflected in aerial, then cosmic, developments proved to be inimical to the social relationship that was Jim Crow.

Aviation also encouraged a long-term trend among African Americans: expatriation. Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a leading pilot and son of an illustrious Negro military man, did not muse about reaching the cosmos; however, despite his fame, fortune, and patriotism, he conceded that his father “was always happiest overseas, where black people were treated far better than they were by most of their own countrymen at home…failing to find that respect in the United States.” His father, the younger Davis noted, “escaped the problem by spending as much time as he could out of the country.” Similar thoughts apparently occurred to other Negroes, who saw aviation as a means to their desired ends. Aviation enhanced a more permanent expatriation, allowing Negroes to reside more easily abroad, where they could then become sterner critics of their homeland while reclining in the bosom of that republic’s staunchest foes.

Aviation additionally facilitated the ability of Negro artists to attain celebrity abroad. The tenor Roland Hayes was just one of many African American performers who attained stardom in Europe before gaining a modicum of acclaim in the U.S. Aviation allowed these artists to accumulate more wealth and build global networks that could then be enlisted in the anti-Jim Crow struggle.

Though facilitated by advances in aviation, the Black expatriation trend was no simple matter. Aviation and expatriation came with a price tag that some were unwilling or unable to pay, and poverty and bigotry consigned many Blacks to a flightless existence just as it dialectically motivated others to explore the contested realm of the skies. By the 1930s, U.S. Negroes were adjudged “the most earthbound people in the country,” with various Jim Crow restrictions barring them from airplanes and airports alike. In 1960, the man who was to become the world’s foremost boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, was so reluctant to fly to the Rome Olympics that later catapulted him to fame and fortune that he boarded the plane carrying an army surplus parachute, which he donned before kneeling in the aisle and praying. As late as 1962, aviation industry estimates indicated that only two percent of U.S. Negroes had flown anywhere, either domestically or abroad. The Haitian American performer Wyclef Jean recalled that while growing up on his home island in 1982, an “airplane was as strange as a UFO.”

* * *

The experience of James Peck in Spain illustrates why political reactionaries early deemed it so important to bar Negroes from the heavens. Aviation facilitated a global war against Jim Crow, colonialism, and fascism—and African Americans were well positioned to take part in those struggles. During the Spanish Civil War, Peck, flying for the Spanish Republican Air Force, launched an aerial strafing expedition against that nation’s fascist foes. As Peck recalled, evincing little pity: “I watched the trapped fascist soldiers run pell-mell in all directions like groups of wild confused mice…the fools!” With a dash of faux sympathy, however, he added, “If they lie still on the ground, they’ve a chance. Peculiar how one can feel sorry for a sworn foe” Though Peck felt compelled to choose temporary exile in Spain to help fight the ultra-right forces there, he was also warring against the comrades of those in the U.S. who bolstered the Jim Crow laws that had chased him from North American shores.

This position was not peculiar to Negroes of the left, like Peck. This paradoxical combination of African Americans feeling compelled to assume an earthbound status by racism, chauvinist restrictions, and poverty while simultaneously taking a deep interest in aviation was connected dialectically. That is, what is often forbidden is often believed to be most alluring. The desire to bar Negroes from the heavens may have driven them to consider the stratosphere even more. Predictably, given a reigning Jim Crow and the increasing use of planes as instruments of warfare, concomitant with the idea that Negroes should be kept away from technological sophistication, special measures were taken to keep this persecuted minority far distant from airplane manufacturing, airports, and, not least, commercial air travel.

 

STAFF REVIEWS ABOUT STORMING THE HEAVENS

So many times we only see stories about the Tuskegee Airmen when it comes Blacks in flight. Storming the Heavens talks about the Airmen, but does more by talking about the groundbreaking Black men and women in flight, prior to the launch of Sputnik. It gave me a good starting place to do further research on these pioneers. Loved the images! - Natalie