Smithsonian Videohistory Collection

Black Aviators
(RU 9545)


Black American men and women struggled throughout the 1930s to gain the opportunity and right to fly airplanes. Organization within African American communities, support by white individuals, and aeronautic feats by blacks working with limited resources all served to challenge the racism and sexism of American society. Despite institutionalized biases and the persisting effects of the Great Depression, the number of licensed black pilots increased about tenfold, to 102, between 1930 and 1941. This development helped move the federal government, though not the private sector, into sanctioning black men to operate the twentieth century technology of powered flight during World War II.

Ted Robinson, an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, held a two-year appointment at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum as a historian of black aviation. During that time he recorded two video sessions with five black aviators of the 1930s. The interviewees related how they became interested in flying, how they obtained airplanes and training, how they publicized their aviation skills at the local and national levels, and how they contended with the prejudices opposing them. Robinson was especially concerned with visually capturing the survivors of that era since there are few pictorial records of their past.


C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson was born in 1906 and had his first airplane ride in 1928. In 1933, he became the first African American to earn a transport, or commercial, pilot's license, and with Dr. Albert E. Forsythe completed a series of long-distance flights in 1933 and 1934 to promote black aviation. In 1940, Anderson instructed students from Howard University for the Civilian Pilots Training Program (CPTP) until he was recruited by Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to act as its chief primary flight instructor. In 1946, he organized Tuskegee Aviation, Inc., to service aircraft until he was forced out of business by the state's attorney general in the late 1950s. He has continued to fly and co-founded Negro Airmen International in 1970 to encourage others to enter the field of aviation.

Janet Harmon Bragg was a registered nurse inspired to fly by the exploits of Bessie Coleman, the first licensed black pilot in the United States. She earned her pilot's license in 1932 at the Aeronautical University, Inc., in Chicago, Illinois, and because she was one of the few black pilots still employed during the Depression, Bragg paid for most of the airplanes used by the Challenger Air Pilots Association during the 1930s. During World War II she was rebuffed by both the Women's Airforce Service Pilots and a license examiner in Alabama from contributing to the war effort as a pilot; the government also refused her services as a nurse. After the war, Bragg married and ran two nursing homes until she retired in Tucson, Arizona.

Lewis A. Jackson was born in 1912 and started flying in 1930. He gained his transport license in 1935; his barnstorming paid for the B.S. he received from Marion College in Indiana in 1939. Jackson joined Cornelius Coffey in Chicago as flight instructor before leaving for Tuskegee where he became director of training for their CPT Program. In 1948, he earned his M.A. in education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in Columbus in 1950. Jackson served in various teaching and administrative positions, including the presidency, at Central State University. He left in 1972 for an administrative post at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He has maintained an interest in flying, examining applicants for pilot licenses, and designing and building airplanes that could also be used on roads.

Cornelius Coffey was born in 1903 and had his first airplane ride in 1919. He graduated from an automotive engineering school in 1925 and an aviation mechanics school in Chicago, Illinois, in 1931. He co-organized the Challenger Air Pilots Association with John Robinson to promote flying among blacks in the Chicago area, built an airport in Robbins, Illinois, and opened an aeronautics school. In 1937 he earned his transport license and opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics. In 1939 the African-American communities in Chicago and Washington, D.C. successfully lobbied to have Coffey's school included in the CPT Program; Coffey trained black pilots and flight instructors throughout World War II. After the war, Coffey joined the Chicago Board of Education and established an aircraft mechanics training and licensing program in the city's high schools. Coffey retired in 1969 and has since acted as a licensed mechanic examiner and aircraft inspector.

Harold Hurd first saw a black man fly an airplane at an airshow in 1929. Three years later, he was one of the first class of all black graduates from Aeronautical University in Chicago. After graduation Hurd helped organize the Challenger Air Pilots Association and its 1937 successor organization, the National Airmen's Association of America, in efforts to expand black interest in flying. He underwrote his aviation interests by working at the Chicago Defender newspaper. He later worked for several local papers on Chicago's Southside.

Video Sessions

This collection consists of two interview sessions, totalling approximately 7:00 hours of recordings, and 201 pages of transcript. There are three generations of tape for each session: originals, dubbing masters, and reference copies. In total, this collection is comprised of 21 original videotapes (21 Beta videotapes), 9 dubbing master videotapes (9 U-Matic videotapes), and 4 reference copy videotapes (4 VHS videotapes).

Session One (November 28, 1989), at the Director's Conference Room, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., featured Anderson, Bragg, and Jackson on the various approaches taken to become licensed pilots, c. 1930-1945, including:

  • Bragg's early experiences and challenges in becoming a pilot;
  • Anderson's training to become first licensed black pilot;
  • Jackson's training for pilot license; origins of National Airmen's Association (NAA);
  • black involvement in Civilian Pilots Training Program (CPTP) CPTP at Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and Tuskegee Institute;
  • Tuskegee Institute's initial refusal to begin aviation program for blacks;
  • operation of CPTP at Tuskegee;
  • post-war careers of interviewees.

Visual documentation included:

group interaction; photographs of people and activities discussed; explanation of photographs shown during the session, with close-ups.

Original Masters: 10 Beta videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 4 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 100 pages
3 hours, 25 minutes

Session Two (March 14, 1990), at the Carnegie-Woodson Regional Library, Chicago, Illinois, featured Coffey and Hurd on efforts to become licensed pilots and organize a flying school, c. 1927-1945, including:

  • Coffey's background in automobile mechanics and experiences in airplane mechanics and engineering;
  • conditions at Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics Challenger Air Pilots Association; building Harlem Airport (Robbins, Illinois);
  • lobbying Tuskegee Institute (Alabama) for aviation program;
  • founding Military Order of the Guard (MOG);
  • National Airmen's Association of America;
  • African-American admittance to Civilian Pilot Training Program;
  • Coffey School of Aeronautics;
  • racial and gender integration of Coffey's school;
  • Coffey's post-war career.

Visual documentation included:

  • photographs of people and activities discussed;
  • MOG membership card.

Original Masters: 11 U-matic videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 5 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 101 pages 4 hours


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