Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was one of the first blacks in aviation. He was the first black parachutist and the first black to fly across the United States. Some called Julian a showman, a fraud, full of big talk. To others, Julian was a hero who did much to advance black aviation. Some labeled Julian a gun runner who dealt with less than scrupulous characters if the price was right. Other people knew him as a man who would fly to rescue people in need all over the world. Julian is also warmly remembered by the people of the West Indies, where he was born, and to whom Julian donated a medical van, hospital equipment, food, and clothing. Julian was tall, handsome, and elegantly dressed, reported to be a ladies man but also a man who deeply loved his wife of forty-eight years.
Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born January 5, 1897 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Julian was the only child of middle-class parents Henry and Silvira Julian. Julian's father managed a cocoa plantation, which gave Julian many opportunities that less fortunate children did not have. Julian attended the exclusive Eastern Boys' School in Trinidad. He was scheduled to go to England to finish school when World War I broke out. Instead Julian was sent to Canada to high school. Julian decided at age four-teen to become a pilot. Much of Julian's spare time was spent at Montreal's St. Hubert Airfield. Julian earned a Canadian pilot's license at age nineteen. He moved to New York in 1921 and married Essie Gittens in 1927. They had one child.
In New York Julian sought a patent for an airplane safety device he had invented called a "parachutta-gravepreresistra." The device was activated by the pilot if the plane developed trouble. A horizontal blade would be activated, which would blow open a huge umbrella to slow the plane's descent to twenty feet per second. Julian was able to obtain a U.S. patent, but later sold the device to a Canadian aircraft corporation.
Aviation was a field mostly closed to blacks. Those who wanted to learn to fly faced many barriers, including segregation and racial discrimination. The U.S. military and most private aviation schools would not teach blacks to fly. Many airports also refused to let black pilots land their planes. Thus black aviators in the 1920s and 1930s started their own flight schools or went to Europe to learn to fly. Julian defied the odds to become famous in American black aviation circles and around the world. Many of Julian's flights within the United States were made prior to his acquisition of a U.S. private pilot's license.
In 1924 Julian proposed to make the first solo flight to Africa in a hydroplane. All previous attempts at international flight had been conducted by pairs of pilots. Julian stated he would fly down the East Coast of Florida then across the Caribbean to Brazil. The next leg of the journey would be to Monrovia, Liberia, up Africa's Gold Coast and finally down the Nile to Ethiopia. Julian raised funds in a variety of ways, including selling shares in the plane. He eventually acquired a plane, which Julian named Ethiopia I. Julian took off from New York; unfortunately, about five minutes into the trip, the right pontoon fell off, and the plane crashed into Flushing Bay.
Despite the fierce opposition faced by black aviators, some people supported black aviation. One such person was Giuseppe M. Bellanca, a leading airplane designer, who pledged $3,000 to the Julian Fund, for construction of a plane which Julian proposed to fly to Paris.
In 1929 Julian became the first black to make a transatlantic flight. Julian was immortalized by Calypso singer Sam Manning in a song entitled "Lieutenant Julian" (1947).
Julian became the first black parachutist in 1922 when he performed at the Long Island Air Show. Called the Ace of Spades, Julian performed parachute stunts to supplement his income.
Julian also invented a motorized parachute, which allowed him to play the saxophone as he floated through the sky. Julian called the device the "Saxophoneparachut-tapreresistationist." During one performance, Julian blew off course and landed on the roof of a New York police station. It was at this point that the New York Telegram bestowed the name Black Eagle of Harlem on him.
On another occasion Julian was scheduled to parachute into Atlantic City. At the last minute the wind blew Julian over the Atlantic Ocean. Not wanting to ruin his clothing, Julian calmly held the parachute with his teeth. Julian removed all his clothing except his undershorts. Another strong blast of wind blew Julian's undershorts off, thus making Julian the first nude parachutist.
Despite some mishaps, Julian was in fact a skilled parachutist. His prowess with a parachute brought him to the attention of Ethiopian emperor Haille Selassie, for whom he performed. This jump was the beginning of a new chapter in Julian's life.
Joins Ethiopian Air Force
In 1930 Julian went to Ethiopia at the invitation of emperor elect Haile Selassie to perform a parachute exhibition. Emperor-elect Selassie was so impressed with Julian's parachuting skills that he bestowed the rank of colonel on Julian and gave him Ethiopian citizenship. Julian became the emperor-elect's confidant and advisor. It was Julian's idea to start an Ethiopian shipping line and commercial airline. In July 1930, Julian returned to the United States to recruit black pilots and technicians for the Ethiopian air force. Unfortunately few people took Julian seriously and he was unable to recruit any pilots. He returned to Ethiopia only to crash the emperor-elect's prized de Havilland Gypsy Moth airplane the day before Selassie's coronation. Julian reduced the Ethiopian air force by one fourth and was expelled from Ethiopia.
Despite the circumstances under which Julian left Ethiopia, he rushed to their aid when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Julian so impressed Selassie that in August 1935, Julian was reinstated as the commander of the Royal Ethiopian Air Force. This trip to Ethiopia ended badly, though. Amid rumors that Julian had tried to embezzle funds from the Ethiopian army, he was asked to leave the country after fighting with another black aviator.
In 1931 Julian began flying bootlegged whiskey from Canada to the East Coast. However, Julian discovered that the Mafia was adding drugs to the whiskey shipments.
By July 1931 Julian had passed the Board of Aeronautics pilot's test. Julian's next step was to organize the all black flying circus called The Five Blackbirds. Their debut in Los Angeles on December 16, 1931 marked the first time so many black pilots were in the air together.
- Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on January 5
- Becomes first black aviator
- Becomes first black parachutist
- Marries Essie Gittens
- First black to fly transatlantic solo
- Awarded the rank of colonel in the Ethiopian Air
- First black to fly coast to coast in the United
- Sets record for longest flight without refueling
- First black to land on French soil; becomes first black man to obtain a pilot's license in England
- Flies to Ethiopia and is hired by Emperor Haille Selassie to head his airforce
- Produces film Lying Lips
- Fights in Finland's Winter War with the Finnish Air Force Regiment 2
- Founds Black Eagle Enterprises, Ltd.; becomes
- Attempts to secure freedom of Ethiopian
- Dies in the Bronx, New York on February 19
In 1939 Julian became an official correspondent for the New York Amsterdam News, reporting on the deteriorating situation in Europe. Julian returned to the United States when France declared war on Germany.
Julian decided to take a break from aviation and parachuting to become a movie producer. His first picture was The Notorious Elinor Lee, which premiered in 1940. It told the story of a woman falsely accused of murdering her aunt.
In 1940 as war continued to rage in Europe, Julian volunteered to help Finland resist invasion by the Russians in what was called the "Winter War." Julian was made a captain in the Finnish Air Force Regiment 2. Upon returning to the United States, Julian promptly challenged Nazi Air Marshall Hermann Goring to an aerial duel over the English Channel. Julian's purpose was to avenge and lay to rest Goring's insults to the black people. The challenge was never accepted.
After the United States entered World War II, Julian volunteered to train for combat with the 789th Tuskegee Airmen. He wore a non-regulation colonel's uniform, despite not holding that rank in the United States Armed Forces. He was discharged before graduation then he turned to the United States Army. Julian served the remainder of the war as an infantryman and was honorably discharged in May 1945.
Julian was able to put his aircraft expertise to use, serving out the remainder of the war as an administrator in Detroit at Ford's Willow Run Aircraft Plant. Once the war ended Julian founded Black Eagle Airlines, Ltd. The company chartered international freight flights and owned several aircraft plants in Europe.
Becomes Munitions Dealer
In 1949, Julian founded Black Eagle Enterprises, Ltd. and registered with the U.S. State Department as a munitions dealer. He became involved in the arms business in 1950. Julian eventually became a purchasing agent for the Guatemalan government. Unfortunately for Julian, the Guatemalan government was Communist and was in the midst of a civil war. When Julian returned from a trip to Europe in 1954, the United States government seized Julian's passport and accused him of selling arms to communists. Julian maintained the whole thing was a big mistake threatening to renounce his U.S. citizenship. One month later Julian was cleared of the charges, and his U.S. passport was returned.
Julian became involved in the Congolese War in 1960. He was arrested in the Congo, labeled a mercenary, and expelled by the United Nations for smuggling arms to Moise Tshombe, who declared the Katanga region of the Congo an independent state. Julian was held in the Congo for approximately four months. Essie Julian appealed to President Kennedy, the United Nations, and U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy. He was finally released in June 1960.
Julian remained connected to Ethiopia and its emperor Haile Selassie. In 1974, Julian, who had settled into the tame existence of running a sugar brokerage firm in New York, learned of Selassie's imprisonment during the Dergue Coup by the Ethiopian military. Julian offered $1.45 million cash to the Ethiopian government. Julian felt he was honor bound to try to free Selassie as, according to Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science, Julian "owed his prominence and stature to the benevolence of His Imperial Majesty."
Julian lived in the Bronx for the remainder of his life. Essie Julian died in 1975. Julian later married Doreen Thompson. He and his second wife had one son. Julian died quietly at the Veterans' Hospital in the Bronx, New York, on February 19, 1983. He was survived by his second wife, the son from his second marriage, a daughter from his first marriage, and two grandsons.
Despite Julian's failures, there is no doubt that he achieved many firsts in aviation and as a parachutist. He used publicity and self-promotion to further his career and advance the field of aviation.
Gupert, Betty Kaplan. "Hubert F. Julian." In Invisible Wings: An Annotated Bibliography on Blacks in Aviation, 1916–1993. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
―――――, Miriam Sawyer, and Caroline M. Fannin. "Hubert F. Julian." In Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002.
Hall, Herman. "Hubert Julian: The Black Eagle of Harlem." In 200 Years of West Indian Contributions. Brooklyn, N.Y: Herman Hall Associates, 1976.
Nugent, John Peer. The Black Eagle. New York: Stein & Day, 1971.
Scott, Lawrence P., and William M. Womack. Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1998.
Scott, William R. "The Eagle and The Lion." In The Sons of Sheba's Race: African Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1941. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Anne K. Driscoll