Red Tails, George Lucas’s airborne shoot-‘em-up about World War II’s famed black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, premieres on Jan. 20. Judging from the trailers and the director’s comments to the press, he’s remade Star Wars over Nazi Berlin. A group of raffish but big-hearted outsiders fight their way through bad blood and doubters on the ground to lead the aerial dogfight against the evil empire. Filmgoers may be forgiven for expecting a climactic airborne mano-à-mano with Darth Vader—I mean Hitler.
The good news is that a new generation will learn that courageous African-American pilots flew and fought not only against the Nazis but their own country’s racism. What the movie won’t show is that long before the Red Tails took wing, black aviators were already smashing through the color barrier in the sky—on their own terms. It’s a worthy story in its own right.
Within a decade of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight, in 1912, a Pennsylvanian named Emory Malick unknowingly began apattern by having to go all the way to Southern California before he could find somebody willing to teach a black person how to fly. He became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license. But after Malick, doors for black aviators slammed shut. American flight instructors and licensing agencies refused to let another African-American fly with their support for the next decade and a half, and so they needed to invent other ways to work around those who would keep them grounded. Eugene Bullard went to France and, in World War I, flew for the Lafayette Escadrille, the all-American squadron fighting for the French. He painted the words “Tout le sang qui coule est rouge!”—“All blood runs red”—on his fuselage. Not so for America’s military once it joined the war. No matter how desperate its need for experienced combat pilots, the U.S. refused to let Bullard fly.
Shortly after the Armistice, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a Trinidadian living in Montreal, fell in love with both the thrill of flight and the pilot’s heroic image. He found a willing Canadian instructor. Moving to Harlem, he specialized in high altitude stunts, including the time he parachuted in a flaming red devil jumpsuit onto a crowded 140th Street.
In 1924, three years prior to Lindbergh’s flight, he attempted to become the first person to solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Julien made it from the New York’s East River to Flushing Bay. “When it crashed it crashed hard,” mocked the New Yorker in a 1931 profile.
Julien had trouble competing in the flamboyance category with his occasional air show mate, Bessie Coleman. Tiny, pretty, and daring, Coleman merited frequent comparison to her white contemporary “aviatrix,” Amelia Earhart. Unable to find an instructor willing to train her, she, too, went to France, getting an international pilot’s license in 1921 even before Earhart.
Back home, “Queen Bess” found fame as a daredevil stunt pilot and parachute jumper. The black community adored her. The white press couldn’t resist the novelty of a black woman pilot. “NEGRESS PILOTS AIRPLANE,” a New York Times headline proclaimed in amazement. Coleman claimed with some justification that she was “the most known colored person other than jazz singers.”
Her vision went beyond her love of flying and aerial stunts. She believed that opening the new and seemingly limitless sky to blacks could transcend the racism that poisoned the ground below. She wanted, she said, to transform “Uncle Tom’s cabin into a hangar.” She refused to participate in segregated air shows and raised money to open a flight school for blacks in L.A. In 1926, while rehearsing for a benefit show for the school, Queen Bess fell from the cockpit five hundred feet to her death.
One of the people Coleman inspired was Chicago businessman William Powell. When no instructor anywhere near Chicago would teach the decorated war veteran to fly, he sold off a successful auto garage chain and moved to L.A. where, in 1929, he found a flight school more interested in the color of his money than his skin.
The visionary Powell soon gathered together most of the nation’s tiny pool of black aviators in an attempt to fulfill Coleman’s dream. They offered free flight instruction and other courses in aeronautics to all comers. The group’s all-black air circuses thrilled tens of thousands of spectators.
America tried to close off the sky to African-Americans, but together they were flying over the Whites Only signs. But one tantalizing aerial mark seemed beyond reach. After three decades of motorized flight, no black aviator had managed to fly coast-to-coast. Few whites believed that blacks had the right stuff to tackle tricky and arduous long-distance flights. What they really lacked was money.
In late September 1932, James Herman Banning and Thomas Allen, both part of Powell’s group, took off from a dusty airfield in sight of the Pacific Ocean. They flew in a rickety, underpowered biplane and carried just $25 in their pockets. The “Flying Hobos” figured they would bum fuel and provisions along the way. Within a few flight legs, though, they were broke.
Then something extraordinary happened.
Banning and Allen charted their course by choosing towns with large black populations. They knocked on the doors of black-owned businesses and spoke at black churches, YMCAs, and even pool halls. People with barely enough money to feed themselves took up collections. Families offered beds and meals. Shop classes overhauled their engine. The national network of black newspapers began to report on their progress. Larger and larger crowds, black and white, turned out to greet the men at each successive airfield.
The pair of aviation pioneers became icons with whom, declared the famed black sociologist and civil-rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, a “race soars upward, on the wings of an aeroplane.”
It took them just 41 hours and 37 minutes of flying time but 21 days to complete their 3,300-mile flight to New York—no faster than the very first cross-country flight two decades earlier. But little matter. They had done what the white world said was impossible, flying beyond the reach of prejudice, above the barriers of segregation.
The Red Tails may make for a rousing Star Wars-meets-Flying Leathernecks action movie. Even without dogfight scenes the wider story of how African Americans shot down race barriers is every bit as dramatic and inspiring.
Until Hollywood figures that out, there’s a comprehensive traveling Smithsonian exhibition titled Black Wings making its way around the country, and the Smithsonian Cable Network channel just premiered a new documentary of the same name.