On this day in 1957, Perry Young Jr. became the first African American pilot to fly a regularly scheduled passenger route for a U.S. airline. The press and community leaders hailed the flight as a significant step forward on the path to desegregation. For Young, it marked a professional milestone after years of persistence in the face of discrimination.
When African American pilot, engineer, and entrepreneur William Powell was a young adult, even the skies were segregated. Many would-be African American pilots, such as first licensed African American pilot Bessie Coleman, were forced to go to France for pilot training and licenses issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. According to a June 12, 2012 article in the online publication, Air Facts, in 1934 there were only 12 African Americans out of 18,041 pilots in the U.S., and out of 8,651 licensed mechanics, just two were African Americans. Airlines wouldn’t even allow African Americans as passengers.
The crew members of the Challenger represented a cross section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as billions around the world saw the accident on television and empathized with any one of the several crew members killed. Each has a unique story.
Dr. Vance Marchbanks, Jr. is famous in both the black history and aerospace history communities for his accomplishments as one of the first in his field. He was one of two black MDs to complete the United States Army Air Corps School in Aerospace Medicine at the beginning of World War II. His fame continued through his association with the 99th and 301st Fighter Groups, who later became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
During World War II, a group of young, enthusiastic and skilled African American men pressed the limits of flight and the boundaries of racial inequality by becoming Army Air Forces pilots. Most of these pilots trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Many older African Americans who grew up in the South painfully remember the time when black passengers had to sit in the back of busses or use separate train compartments; and when train stations and bus terminals provided separate but mostly unequal facilities such as drinking fountains, restrooms, waiting lounges, and eating facilities for black and white passengers.