Across the Pond
My Heroes Always Fight Colonizers
My heroes have always fought colonizers or, in this case, have at least tried to.
Hubert Julian is one of them and is my Black history hero because his courage, commitment, and determination power my ability to resist anti-Black racist oppression.
Julian was born in Trinidad’s capital in 1897 and migrated to New York in 1921. The following year, he began flying his own airplane over parades in New York City supporting Marcus Garvey, the father of Pan-Africanism and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.
Called the “Black Eagle of Harlem,” Julian was one of the first Black people to obtain a pilot’s license in the United States. He was often credited as the first Black person or one of the first Black people to fly across the Atlantic solo in 1929 and the first Black person to fly coast to coast in the U.S. in 1931. (Historians disagree on this point as some reports say he never completed the Atlantic flight.) However, in 1931, he also set the record for flying the longest without refueling.
These accomplishments were just the foundation of his heroism. He regaled audiences most Saturdays by making parachute jumps over Harlem, once playing the saxophone, and once landing atop the 123rd Street police station.
Julian later organized America’s first Black precision flying troupe, The Five Blackbirds, which mesmerized the country. His 1924 attempt to fly solo across the Atlantic to Liberia ended when his plane crashed into the ocean off the coast of New York. (Don’t worry, he lived through it.)
That didn’t stop his desire to raise the profile of Africa or strengthen the connection between the Diaspora and the continent.
Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie invited him to put on an aerial display during Selassie’s coronation in 1930. Julian leaped from an airplane, parachuting to the feet of Selassie, who was so pleased that he bestowed Ethiopian citizenship on Julian, the rank of colonel, and awarded him the Order of Menelik, the empire’s highest honor. However, he was dismissed from the kingdom when he crashed the emperor’s favorite plane.
Ethiopia had a special significance for many in the Black Diaspora. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University says, “It stood as a symbol of anti-imperial defiance and African modernity.”
Ahead of Benito Mussolini’s colonizing and racist and fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Samuel Daniels, head of the Pan-African Reconstruction Association, toured major American cities and recruited 3,000 young men to send to Ethiopia.
It was determined by the State Department that it was illegal for American citizens to fight for a foreign power, but that did not stop Julian. The emperor invited Julian back to head Ethiopia’s air force to fight against Benito Mussolini’s aggression. This raised the aspiration and self-esteem of Black people globally because in 1935, no African American had ever been trained as a U.S. military pilot.
Italy annexed Ethiopia in 1936, and Julian left but returned in 1941 as a volunteer for the East Africa Campaign, which freed Ethiopia from the colonial grip of fascist Italy.
The Black Eagle’s global fight for justice transcended racial barriers, and he volunteered for the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. However, the weight of his anti-racist convictions manifested themselves when he challenged Adolf Hitler’s senior political and military strategist Hermann Goring during World War II to an aerial duel over the English channel because of their treatment of Black people in Nazi Germany.
Once the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into World War II, Julian enlisted in the U.S. military and volunteered to train for combat with the Tuskegee Airmen. However, his flamboyant nature led to an honorable discharge before graduation.
The Black Eagle crafted an illustrious career for himself as a pioneering aviator, a Pan-African, an activist, and later as a licensed arms dealer. He became “richer now than a yacht full of Greeks,” acting as an agent for developing and newly independent often post-colonial nations.
He defied the FBI and remained on its watchlist for decades. The Black Eagle’s wings were clipped when he was arrested by the United Nations and then expelled from the Congo over an $18 million arms deal when he was 65 years old.
In one of his last interviews, Julian explains how being Black affected his pursuit of excellence. “The things I would have been able to accomplish had I not been a Negro,” he lamented. “I wish I would have come into the world looking like my mother, who was English, rather than my father; I would not have had to surmount the insurmountable obstacles.”
The Black Eagle’s inspirational life ended in 1983. He is resting in power and buried at Calverton National Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. He was 85 years old when he passed.
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