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    Auction Finds

    Photo of a 1920s African American aviator? Or not?

    The man and the airplane in the photo were from another era. He had a speck of a smile, and he was wearing an early 20th century U.S. Navy pilot’s uniform, with cap and goggles. His outfit, though, was worn and damaged, and his goggles were slightly askew.

    Was he was one of the country’s early African American daredevil aviators? Most of the ones I’d seen – black and white – were photographed in pristine clothing, knowing perhaps that they were projecting an image not only for the present but for posterity.

    Why was his story? The photo was being offered for sale at auction recently. By the time I came to it hanging on a wall, someone had already left an absentee bid on it.

    African American aviator

    An up-close view of the photo from the auction. Is the man a daredevil aviator?

    I knew that the bidding would be fierce and competitive. Black photos, black memorabilia or practically anything representing African Americans rarely go unsold at auctions. So I was not surprised when several of us got into the bidding when this photograph came up.

    Fortunately, I hung in there longer than the others, paying much more than I had intended. I stuck with the bidding because the photo intrigued me, and I wanted to find out as much as I could about the man and his times.

    The brown-paper covering on the back of the frame gave no hint of the framer or the man, so I removed it to see if he was identified on the back of the photo. The framer had used a white Styrofoam board as backing. Written in pencil on the board was the name “J. Hill.” Was this J. Hill in the photo?

    I kept digging further into the framing materials. To my utter dismay, the framer had glued both the matting and photo to the board. How awful. Now there was no way for me to see the back of the photo; I could not remove it without tearing it.

    African American aviator

    The framed photo from the auction.

    So I started Googling for a J. Hill, early African American aviator, and came up with nothing. I did learn about some early African American flyers who were among the country’s finest daredevils of the early 20th century.

    Bessie Coleman was a name I was familiar with because she was the first African American female to obtain a pilot’s license. She had to go to Paris to be trained, because no flight school would admit her in the country of her birth. She received her license in 1921 and had her first air show in New York a year later.

    Daredevils such as Coleman barnstormed for a living after World War I when surplus military planes were plentiful and aviators were both fearless and daring – or a little nuts. They did somersaults, spins and dives with their planes, walked on the wings and hung from the wings, and jumped from moving plane to moving plane. White pilots back from the war and African American aviators who had learned through other means performed these amazing stunts high above paying crowds below. Barnstorming was the era’s most exciting form of entertainment.

    African American aviator Bessie Coleman

    African American aviator Bessie Coleman on the wheel of a Curtiss Jenny airplane in a 1922 photo. Photo from

    Many of these aviators didn’t survive the stunts. Coleman herself died in 1926 when she and her mechanic took her Curtiss Jenny airplane up for a test flight (or were scouting a parachute-jump site for an upcoming show in Jacksonville, FL). The plane malfunctioned, the mechanic-pilot lost control, and she was thrown from the cockpit to her death from the passenger seat.

    (Could the man in the auction photo have been a mechanic-pilot?)

    The Curtiss Jenny became the barnstorming plane of choice, because it was affordable and easy to operate. It was immortalized in 1918 on a U.S. postage airmail stamp called the “Inverted Jenny” that is now considered rare. The stamp was misprinted with the plane upside down, and one sheet of 100 stamps was mistakenly sold.

    As for the photo, the man was posing in front of what appeared to be a Jenny airplane, but this one was buoyed in water. Googling, I finally found one like it: the Curtiss N-9 seaplane.

    The Curtiss company first made the planes for the U.S. Navy in 1916 to train white pilots, converting the Jenny plane into one that could land on water. Called the “seaplane Jenny,” the N-9 was discontinued in 1927. Glenn H. Curtiss and his company would have a long relationship supplying planes to the Navy.

    African American aviator

    The Styrofoam backing on the photo bears the name J. Hill written in pencil.

    I suspect that this photo is from around that time, soon after the first world war. The man’s clothing seemed to indicate that period: He is wearing a Navy pilot’s uniform similar to ones I saw in a photo of white pilots.

    He was not a U.S. Navy pilot, though. African Americans have a history in the Navy that goes back centuries but not as pilots. They manned gunboats during the Revolutionary War, fought in the War of 1812 and commandeered Confederate ships for the Union Army during the Civil War. After that war, the Navy relegated them to menial jobs, where they remained until the mid-20th century.

    The Navy would not allow African Americans to enlist from 1919 to 1932; only those sailors already in the service before 1919 were allowed to remain. Jesse L. Brown became the first African American naval aviator in 1948 after President Truman ended segregation in the military.

    I’d love to know more about the man and the circumstances of the auction photo. If you can offer more info, please contact me in the Comments box below.

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