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Musings on Black History Month-Women’s History Month and the History of Aviation

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For a number of years now, the United States has set aside February and March to celebrate Black History Month and National Women’s History Month, respectively. While these commemorations are praiseworthy, they should not disguise the fact that they have been rather contentious culturally. Some would argue that it is insulting to African Americans to celebrate their history for only one month every year. In the case of women, National Women’s History Month has become a call to arms in an ongoing struggle for women’s rights, to ensure educational and economic opportunities for all women, and for ending violence against them. Moreover, these celebrations give the impression of being restitution for past historical wrongs and injustices.

Unfortunately, the use of these tributes in the history of aviation has its own sense of tokenism. Celebrations of the aviation accomplishments of African Americans and women should not ignore the fact that often these groups had to struggle against deeply-ingrained racial and gender prejudice. Laudably, the interwar years saw attempts to democratize aviation, with such programs as “An Airplane for Everyman,” a New Deal attempt to design and build an affordable aircraft for Americans, and the Civilian Pilot Training Program, another New Deal program created to stimulate the private flying business and train thousands of pilots in preparation for wartime. Ironically, while attempts were being made to make flying all inclusive, blacks and women were routinely disenfranchised from aviation because of prejudice.

Eugene Bullard

Eugene Bullard is the acknowledged first African American military pilot, although he flew for the French flying service not the US Air Service. An American expatriate to France, Bullard was a hero of the Battle of Verdun before he began to fly for the French.

Eugene Bullard, the acknowledged first American black military pilot was initially accepted into the Aéronautique Militaire, trained as a pilot, and flew in combat, but was refused entry into the U.S. Air Service largely because of racial prejudice. There is some reason to believe that Bullard was subsequently booted out of the French air service because of American influence and American racial prejudice. Bessie Coleman, the acknowledged first black woman aviator in United States, was so determined to learn to fly that she had to travel to France to do so. Her successors in Chicago were forced to create a “shadow” activity, flying in segregated circumstances, because they were barred from the white flying community. William J. Powell, who established black flying activity and trade education programs in California, saw aviation as a way for blacks to be accepted into the mainstream. As enlightened as Powell’s ideas were, they came to naught in a climate of racial prejudice.

Bessie Coleman Aero Club and William Powell

Founded by William J. Powell (standing, extreme right) in California 1931, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club took the name of the first acknowledged African-American woman pilot. The club promoted flying activities and trade education in the belief that aviation would break down racial barriers. Powell insisted that the club be open to all races and to women.

Military flying was especially an area where blacks were excluded because they were deemed intellectually unfit. In October 1925 a report prepared for the U.S. Army chief of staff, titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” was reportedly the result of several years of study by War College students and faculty. The report concluded that Negro men considered themselves to be inferior to white men, subservient by nature, and lacked initiative and resourcefulness. Blacks were only “fair” laborers and thought to be substandard as technicians and fighters. Blacks were also very low on the scale of human evolution, with a smaller cranial cavity than that of whites. Blacks were thought to be profoundly superstitious by nature, and to possess numerous character and moral weaknesses, among them petty lying, promiscuity, and a tendency to commit atrocities in regard to white women. But the most injurious accusation was that blacks were cowardly. This study would be the basis for the exclusion of black Americans from the Army Air Corps, but it could also have served as a blueprint for keeping them out of flying altogether. Even when the U.S. Army Air Corps was finally forced by law to admit blacks into its flying program on January 16, 1941, it was on a segregated basis until well after WWII.

The War College report, however, had a larger context. Reinforcement for racism was provided by nineteenth-century scientific theory. For example, Samuel G. Morton, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote numerous works, among which Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America (1839), An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America (1842), and Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy, History, and the Monuments (1844), are considered to be the foundation of a theory of scientific racism. Crania Americana, for example, sought to divide peoples into four hierarchical racial classifications, based on measurable physical differences, especially as regards the capacity of the brain, with Europeans at the high end of the scale, and Asians, Native Americans and Africans at the low end.

In the twentieth century, the idea of the separation of the races and the superiority of one race over another was further reinforced by psychology. Anthropologist Audrey Smedley [Race in North America: Origins and Evolution of a Worldview (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007)] points out that the development of intelligence tests was one avenue of reinforcing the idea of race and racial superiority and inferiority established scientifically in the nineteenth century. These tests claimed that intelligence was measurable and based on hereditary differences rather than environmental factors. “The IQ tests,” Smedley writes, “became the favorite technique of pro-heredity advocates, and their success reflects the fact that their findings and interpretations have been highly compatible with the racial worldview to which Americans in general have subscribed.” (293)

In the case of women, Blanche Stuart Scott, Matilde Moissant, Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law, and Katherine Stinson overcame numerous barriers in the years before WWI to fly and set flying records. One of the largest obstacles was the overwhelming impression that piloting an airplane was a masculine endeavor, an idea that had been promulgated in the early years of flying. It was the Great War, however, that definitely put a masculine stamp on flying, especially with the creation of the “ace,” a fighter pilot who gained prominence by the number of victories (aircraft shot down) scored against the enemy. Businessmen like Andre Michelin, the French tire mogul established a million-franc fund for aviators who had distinguished themselves in battle. By 1916, governments began to recognize aviators and exploit their nationalistic and propagandistic value. Courage in aerial combat was seen as a distinctly male trait.

American cultural taboos against women taking part in combat affirmed that women would not be allowed to fly in combat; thus, there was no possibility that women could achieve distinction as military pilots. Nor were women admitted into other areas of aviation, except in a token manner, despite the fact that there were notable headliners during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, and Jacqueline Cochran. As Susan Ware [Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (New York; W.W. Norton)] points out, “The late 1920s represented a golden age for the woman pilot. But at the end of the decade women pilots had been excluded from the next stage of development—that of commercial aviation—and their marginalization was cemented by World War II. The postwar world of aviation was very much a man’s world, although strong-minded and talented individual women continued to play a role.” (61-62)

Amelia Earhart

The most famous woman pilot of her era, Amelia Earhart was a promoter of women’s careers in aviation and one of the founders of the Ninety-Nines, the first professional organization of women pilots. Her disappearance in 1937 during an around-the-world flight attempt sent shockwaves through the aviation community. Speculation about what happened to her is widespread nearly three quarters of a century later.

Louise Thaden

Another renowned woman pilot who came to prominence in the interwar years, Thaden was winner of the 1929 transcontinental Women’s Air Derby (the so-called “Powder Puff Derby”), one of the founders of the Ninety-Nines, and the first woman (with Blanche Noyes) to win the Bendix Trophy Race in 1936, flying from New York to Los Angeles in slightly less than fifteen hours.

Jaqueline Cochrane

Cochran was a celebrated woman pilot whose career spanned four decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. In 1937, she won the prestigious long-distance Bendix Trophy Race, flying from Los Angeles to Cleveland in a little more than eight hours. She later founded the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), a group of civilian women who flew military aircraft in non-combat situations during World War II. In 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier.

Ware’s statement is borne out by the fate of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program of WWII. The WASP were civilian women who worked for the U.S. Army Air Forces as service pilots, ferrying aircraft from factories to ports and military training bases, towing targets, and flying cargo. Despite the success of the program, and the fact that women proved they were capable of flying many different kinds of military aircraft in difficult circumstances and over long distances, the program came to an abrupt end because of politics, and the fears of male service pilots that their jobs would be taken by women after the war.

WASP

Members of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) are pictured at Lockbourne Army Air Field in World War II. From left to right are Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn. The WASP were civilian women pilots who flew in non-combat situations for the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war. The program came to an abrupt end in 1944 because of gender politics.

While the situation for blacks and women in aviation has changed somewhat, racial and gender stereotypes still exist. Also, despite the breaking of barriers, blacks and women are decidedly underrepresented in military aviation, commercial aviation, aeronautical engineering, and the aviation business in general. One can only hope that commemorations like Black History Month and National Women’s History Month will at least make people aware that historically blacks and women have proved they were capable of making significant contributions, and that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and be accorded equal status.

Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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2 thoughts on “Musings on Black History Month-Women’s History Month and the History of Aviation

  1. i have personal letters written by Jacqueline O’nassis while she was a member of the WASPs during WWII

  2. A Bouvier with a public servant job? Oh, the horror. And when she was 13 years old, no less? Either Jackie O. was a real trailblazer or somebody sold you a bill of goods.

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