February 5th, 1957 may have seemed like a fairly normal winter day for New York City, but for some, it represented significant progress. On that day Perry Young Jr. climbed aboard a New York Airways helicopter, becoming the first African American pilot to fly a regularly scheduled passenger route for a U.S. airline. The press and community leaders hailed it as a significant step forward on the path to desegregation, hoping it would encourage “non-discrimination in all job categories.” Perry’s flight also marked a professional milestone in a career full of them.
Born in Orangeburg, North Carolina, in 1919, he moved to Oberlin, Ohio with his family in 1929. Graduating from high school there in 1937, he put a great deal of effort into learning to fly. After taking his first plane ride in July, he started training to become a pilot. Over that summer, he worked odd jobs to pay for lessons.
Young went so far as to turn his back on a promising academic career to become a pilot. Though he attended Oberlin College and received an offer of scholarship from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Young chose to complete his training instead. From 1939 onward he sought work as an instructor.
Despite his enthusiasm, Young still ran into obstacles as he attempted to begin a career. America in the 1930s was divided by segregation. For African Americans, many economic opportunities simply did not exist due to laws or corporate practices that kept them out of numerous industries. This was true of commercial aviation at the time—airlines across the nation were unwilling to hire black pilots, regardless of their experience or qualifications.
It would take World War II for circumstances to change for Young. With war on the horizon, the U.S. government founded the Civilian Pilot Training Program, partly to increase the number of capable aviators in the country. Through this program, Young became an instructor at the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago in 1940. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Army Air Corps found itself scrambling to find men who could train its swelling ranks of new recruits. The military soon hired Young to teach pilots of the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron. These aviators, African American as well, became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Young trained more than 150 of them, and many of his students went on to serve with distinction in Europe.
After the war, Young continued to search for employment in the aviation industry. Again finding segregation difficult to overcome at home, he found work flying in the Caribbean. He flew in Haiti for several years before unsuccessfully attempting to found his own flying service in Port-au-Prince. While there, he would meet his wife and start a family.
His work took him all over North America. Moving his young family to Puerto Rico in 1953, he got a job as a pilot for the Water Resources Authority there. From this time onward he was constantly learning new skills. In 1954 he had spent enough time in Massachusetts to learn how to fly helicopters. The next year, he obtained an Airline Transport Rating in Texas. Work for various aviation companies eventually would take him as far afield as Canada and the Virgin islands.
After considerable effort, Young finally succeeded in gaining employment in America. In 1956, New York Airways hired him as a commercial pilot, as new safety rules required the company to have copilots for its new Sikorsky S-58s. Young’s experience made him an excellent candidate: over the years he had amassed over 7,000 hours of flight time, 200 of which had been in helicopters.
In addition to his achievements, Civil Rights organizations also contributed to Young’s success. The Urban League of Greater New York and the State Commission against Discrimination had pushed for many regional airlines to change their discriminatory practices and hire African American pilots. At the time, some newspapers hailed Young’s achievement as a breakthrough.
After some time spent orienting himself with the new organization and its equipment, Young became the first African American pilot in a regularly scheduled commercial airline in the U.S. with his February 5th, 1957 flight. Before a month had passed, he was a captain. His professionalism and passion were both clearly evident, when he told the press, “Flying is my whole life. I love it.” Young would continue to fly with New York Airways into the ‘70s. Even after the airline folded due to bankruptcy, he still flew sightseeing helicopters in the area.
Perry Young’s exploits inspired others to follow. African Americans would continue to break into the industry. From the late 1950s into the 1960s, men and women would slowly gain wider access to jobs as flight attendants and airline pilots across the US. Activism and access went hand in hand. In 1958, Ruth Carol Taylor obtained employment as a stewardess at an American airline, becoming the first African American to do so. As with Young, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination took up her cause. Marlon Green brought a case against Continental Airlines to the Supreme Court several years later in 1964. The court ruled he had been discriminated against unfairly during hiring, and he went on to fly for the company. Unfortunately, pervasive racism continued to limit African American pilot hires in commercial aviation. Although military aviation offered earlier paths to advancement to African American pilots during and after World War II, African Americans represent scarcely more than 2% of the pilots in military and commercial aviation today.* Nonetheless, Perry Young’s success marked a significant early attempt to combat discrimination in commercial aviation.
*Clagett, Mary Gardner. Advancing Career and Technical Education in State and Local Career Pathways Project: Final Report, Washington, DC: Department of Education, 2015.