For all four days of it, Cornelius Coffey saw the white people watching, farmers in dusty old Fords, kids riding out on bicycles, women in big hats standing outside the airport fence, and every once in a while one of them would let go a whoop: "Hey boy, when you going to give up and sell that airplane back to the junkman?" That kind of thing.
It wasn't till years later, back at the flying school he ran at Chicago's Harlem Airport, that Coffey began to realize what really happened there in Jackson, Miss. At the time, he'd thought about it mostly as an engineering problem, the way he thinks about most things.
"It was 19 and 37," Coffey says. "I was barnstorming all through the South with my partner, Johnny Orbinson. He'd fly ahead in his gull-wing Stinson and give talks at churches and schools about flying and his experiences running Haile Selassie's air force in Ethiopia, before the Italians invaded. Then he'd sell tickets for the rides and I'd fly in the next day and take people up.
"So one Monday in October, I was supposed to fly over from Jackson to meet him. I took off at 7 a.m. Then just as I got off the field, the oil pressure started to oscillate. I could hear the knocking and clinking. I shut off the engine and came back in and landed with a dead stick.
"Fella drove out in a pickup truck. He was the janitor, he unloaded the mail, he did about everything at that little airport. So he towed me in, and he says: "You think you can fix this airplane? You sure you can fix this airplane?
"Because when I started tearing that engine down the crowd started gathering, white people. They'd hardly ever seen a black pilot, much less a black man who could disassemble an airplane engine. They kept watching and watching.
"I never had any trouble, no trouble at all," Coffey says now, remembering all his flights through a Jim Crow South. He appears to take a hard pride in that fact, a kind of pride that got forgotten, at best, with the rise of black militance in the 1960s. He is 76, and he is sitting in a living room in Takoma Park.
In a couple of hours he is to be honored at the Air and Space Museum by Negro Airmen International Inc. for his exploits as a pioneer in black aviation.
He never had any trouble, not even the first time he rode in an airplane and the pilot thought it would be a good joke on this skinny little colored boy. It was January 1919, and a World War I veteran had landed a Jenny in a field outside Omaha. Coffey rode his motorcycle, a Henderson Four-Cylinder, out to look at it. The pilot decided he'd give him a scare -- "I could hear the remarks and whispering. He took me up for $3. He did loops, he did stuff he'd never done before, he said he'd make sure I never looked at another airplane.
"Except I think it was rougher on him than on me. When we got down he actually advised me to get into flying."
As it turned out, Coffey studied automobile mechanics, applying to one school after another till he found one that took blacks, the Chicago School of Automotive Engineering. He wound up in Detroit, in the mid '20s, owning a garage in the Black Bottom section, "a bad part of town, that's where they had all the bootlegging. That's where I met my partner Johnny Robinson, too. He'd been repairing bootleggers' cars in Chicago, but the heat was on him, so he had to go to Detroit."
Robinson and Coffey got talking about flying, and by 1928, Coffey had soloed in a Waco-9 biplane he still owns. He had to own it. Back then, if a black man wanted to fly a plane, he had to buy it first.
By 1932, Coffey was one of two black licensed aircraft mechanics in America (along with John W. Greene, also honored last weekend at the Air and Space Museum, along with Lewis A. Jackson, C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, Dr. Albert E. Forsythe and Willa Brown who helped run Coffey's flying school when he was training Air Force pilots during World War II).
Black Americans knew there were black flyers -- Bessie Coleman had started during World War I and Col. Hubert Julian, "the Black Eagle of Harlem" known ultimately for his flamboyant lectures about flying some black aviators claim he never did.
But many people, like Jenny the pilot, believed the white stereotype that blacks wouldn't fly even if they could. A National Georgraphic article began with a joke about a black refusing to fly with the punch line resembling: "No sah, it's terra firmah fo me -- and de mo' firmah de less terra."
Even in 1934, writing in his autobiography, "Black Wings," aviator William Powell felt obliged to address the question: "Are Negroes afraid to fly? Certainly not, for we are engaged in many things far more dangerous . . . "
Then again, those were lynching years, down South. "people didn't see how I could fly down there, back then," Coffey says. In 1934, flying in Alabama, he'd crashed in a cotton field outside of Decatur. People stormed across the foot-high cotton to see the plane, mules, wagons and all. They didn't pay for the cotton -- Coffey did, no arguing about it, especially knowing that two weeks before a mob had lynched four blacks.
Forty two years later, his face focuses down on those four days at the airport in Jackson, the crowd of white people jeering and teasing.
"They wouldn't allow the colored to stop and watch, they'd run them away from that fence. They didn't want to give them no bad ideas."
(Ahh, such a huge smile now in the living room. He shows a lot of teeth, and hard, clam eyes, and skin that has the thin, almost translucent look that old people get. He wears a plaid shirt with sleeves he rolls up a turn at a time as he tells the story.)
The problem was a busted crankshaft in his four-place Challenger Robin, a high-wing monoplane, with "Col. Johnny Robinson Airlines" painted on the side. He'd built a workbench out on the field, taken down the engine, gotten the airport janitor to wrap all the parts in newspaper to keep that piney-woods dust off them.
"After four days of working, I had the crankshaft in. I had to try and start it. This is what the crowd was waiting for. I put the janitor -- his name was Crawford -- up in the cockpit. He'd never been in a cockpit before. I showed him how to work the switch, while I pulled on the prop. It's kind of a tricky thing, you have to have it just right. Besides, I had a little booster mag, and he'd have to reach down at just the right moment and give it a spin.
"I get it so I can feel it's ready to try. I yell 'Contact.'
"He yells: 'Contact!'
"Crawford sees that prop start to move, he bends down and hits the hand booster, and the first pop! It went off! The people couldn't believe it went off. I ran it in for a couple of hours and the crowd stayed and stayed. They couldn't believe it."
At the time, of course, Coffey had seen it as an engineering problem. But then Crawford came up to Chicago not long after and they talked about it. Crawford, as it happened, had been assigned to guard the mail, and he'd shot a mail robber. The robber was white, and Crawford had to run north.
By then, Coffey was ending his Southern barnstorming days and getting ready to train black pilots for the war, a huge operation which quietly folded after it was over.
"I tried to get an air cargo operation going, but I couldn't find any backers."
He taught some on the GI Bill, worked as a mechanic for the Post Office, and ended up as an inspector of aircraft parts. He still lives in Chicago, still flies.
And sitting here, waiting to be praised on a Saturday night at the Air and Space Museum, he thinks about how the crowd waited while he ran in that engine down in Jackson 42 years ago; waited till he took it down the runway, lifted off, circled around and landed again. They were still there as he taxied back toward the fence. Under the noise of his engine roaring he could see their white hands beating together, applauding.