Soaring on the hope of equality

Airplanes: In the early years of flight, African-Americans and women saw them as vehicles for travel - and for change.

December 07, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

One in a series of occasional articles

With the luster of its potential tarnished by a century of use, it now seems odd to think of the airplane as anything more than a convenient way to get from one city or country to another. But at the turn of the century, some believed that the technology was capable of bringing about profound social change, including promoting greater equality for women and African-Americans.

The notion gained proponents among a smattering of women and black pilots during the "Golden Age of Aviation" - a 20-year period between the two world wars when aviation was in its infancy and flying machines were wondrous. They saw the "aeroplane" as an instrument of empowerment, a solution even for sexism and racism.

It was just one of the many beliefs born from what Americans coined in the 1920s as "the winged gospel," the fervent enthusiasm for the life-changing potential of the flying machine.

With the dawning of the air age, many self-described "disciples" believed - as did its inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright - that the airplane would end warfare. Some envisioned a future with "an airplane in every garage." Still others thought aviation could elevate the image of oppressed groups and help them pave a way to equal standing in American society.

"Starting with railroads in the 19th century and continuing with computers today, Americans have long associated their technologies with progress and hope," according to Stanford University history professor Joseph J. Corn, author of The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950. "Because airplanes operated in the `heavens' where God traditionally dwelled, they generated particularly utopian hopes."

Though women and African-Americans were barred from commercial and military aviation until World War II, a few pursued aviation careers as barnstormers and air racers. They hoped their exploits in the aeronautical arena would fly in the face of the belief that they could not and should not fly.

"The aeroplane should open a fruitful occupation for women," Harriet Quimby, the first licensed female pilot in the United States, said in June 1912 - two months after she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. "I see no reason they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, from parcel delivery, taking photographs or conducting schools of flying."

That was a fairly radical view considering that women primarily worked as secretaries and clerks.

Record-setting air racer Louise Thaden advanced a similar notion when she told The New York Times in 1929 that "sex distinction in the region of the air" was impossible and therefore foreshadowed great possibilities for female pilots.

Some, as Corn notes in his book, went a step further. In a 1930 article titled "Flying Is Changing Women," pilot Margery Brown argued that female pilots were becoming more assertive, confident and independent women who would come to expect equal treatment from men on the ground.

"Many of these women were feminists and they believed that by demonstrating that a woman could operate what was considered a complex technology, this would present a different image of women," said Janet Bednarek, an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, who has studied how aviation inspired women and African-Americans. "They wanted to gain greater freedoms."

Similar desires existed among black aviators of the late 1920s who sought to soar above legalized segregation and discrimination of Jim Crow laws. Many struggled just to find anyone willing to teach them to fly.

Bessie Coleman, known as "Bess the Brave," became the first black woman aviator, but was forced to travel to France to earn her international pilot's license. She could find no aviation school in America that would train her. After receiving her license in 1921, she returned to launch a successful career as an aerial performer.

"The air is the only place free from prejudices," said Coleman, who dreamed of opening a flying school for women and blacks. Before she could realize her goal, she fell to her death in 1926 while practicing for an air show.

Her example inspired other blacks, including pilot William J. Powell, a university-trained engineer and World War I veteran from Chicago. In 1929, he founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.

In 1938, inspired by Coleman, African-American pilots Willa Brown and Cornelius Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago. Hundreds of black pilots received training and its graduates taught near Tuskegee, Ala. training the U.S. military's first black pilots during World War II.

Von Hardesty, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum curator and co-author of Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation, said Powell was the most prominent proselytizer of the winged gospel among blacks.

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