"War Department indifference and hostility" toward blacks comes under fire in the Air & Space Museum's small but instructive new exhibit, "Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation." The show, which opened this week, isn't the supersonic, flashy variety, but a quiet documentation of the uphill battle of blacks in this field.
Curators had a hard time getting help from the Army in putting the show together, since the brass don't have an admirable story to tell. Such petty harassments as refusing use of airfields, refusing to sell gasoline or give flight training to blacks were standard operating procedure. It wasn't until July of 1948 that Harry S. Truman signed an order ending segregation in the military -- largely because it was inefficient to maintain two air forces with separate ground crews, trainers and flyers.
The Who's Who of black flyers starts with Eugene Bullard of Georgia -- the world's first black combat pilot in World War I -- and early 1920s stunt pilot Bessie Coleman of Chicago -- the first American black to receive a pilot's license. Because of their color, both had to go to France for pilot training.
Pioneers, commercial pilots, NASA professionals and astronauts are included, the latter with qualifiers: "Progress toward placing a black astronaut in space has been slow," the label reads, although four blacks are now in training. Also on view is a five- minute videotape of the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama where the first all-black fighter units trained. The tape is narrated by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., America's first black Air Force general and commander of the "Tuskegee Airmen."
Curator Von Hardesty, who did much original research, was assisted by the pilots and, in some cases, by pilots' survivors who contributed photographs to the exhibit. The show will remain on view for a couple of years; the show's photographs will be published with others in a book this February. BLACK WINGS: THE AMERICAN BLACK IN AVIATION -- At the National Air & Space Museum, for an indefinite run.