In December, 1931, Los Angeles Mayor John Porter welcomed a group of black pilots to City Hall. The next day, 40,000 people streamed out to an Eastside airport to watch the fliers perform stunts to benefit the city's unemployed.
In an era when commercial air services and the U.S. Army Air Corps denied them jobs, black Los Angeles aviators honed their aerobatic skills, started flying clubs and taught other blacks how to fly.
They made Los Angeles the national mecca for black pilots in the late 1920s and 1930s and helped train the celebrated black World War II pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, who destroyed 260 German planes and damaged 148.
The role of these little-remembered pilots is part of a 116-piece photo exhibit, "Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation," which runs through July 12 at the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park.
It is accompanied by a 125-piece review of the black military experience from the Civil War to the Vietnam War entitled "To Prove Our Worth: The Irony of the Black Military Experience." That exhibit can be seen through Sept. 30.
Both shows are free to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, including July 4, museum curator Lonnie Bunch III said.
In addition to the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black Wings exhibit focuses on early 1920s stunt flier Bessie Coleman, World War I combat pilot Eugene Bullard, who was rejected by the Army Air Corps and flew for the French, and Herman Banning and Thomas Allen, who flew from Los Angeles to Long Island in 1932--the first cross-country flight by blacks.
Bunch says that the early fliers were extremely important to black America, who thought that the pilots, by mastering aviation technology, would prove that blacks deserved equality.
"Since flying involved skills beyond most Americans," he wrote in an article in the Journal of American Culture, "if blacks could pilot these 'wondrous machines' they would shatter the myth of black inferiority.
"How could white America not see that black equality in the air should lead to black equality on the ground?"
W. E. B. DuBois, one of the foremost black leaders of the period, held a similar view, writing in 1932 that the black "race soars upward, on the wings of an aeroplane."
Blacks regarded Banning and Allen as heroes following their cross-country jaunt.
Operating on a small budget, the aviators called themselves " 'the flying hoboes,' " Bunch said, "because they depended upon the good will of the people they met for gasoline, parts and nourishment. . . . "
Using a plane pieced together from junkyard parts, they made the 3,300-mile trip in 42 hours aloft. But the trip required 21 days because the pair had to raise money at each stop.
In Tulsa, Okla., Bunch said, the flyers persuaded oilman William Skelly to underwrite the next leg. In exchange for financing in Pittsburgh they agreed to drop Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaign leaflets in three cities. In some towns they asked black churches to pass the collection plate.
Allen said the pair always looked for black neighborhoods to eat and sleep, yet in many locations whites offered surprising support.
At Wichita Falls, Tex., a largely white crowd welcomed them as the first "colored" fliers to land. The press covered their arrival while townspeople provided food and transportation into town.
The welcome afforded black fliers in Los Angeles was sometimes as warm, Bunch said, referring to the mayor inviting the stunt pilots to City Hall.
"These things didn't happen anywhere else," Bunch said.
Bunch said that although the early aviators did not bring the hoped-for equality, they were important to the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, which prodded the armed services and the nation toward integration.
The Airmen, who trained and flew in a segregated unit, had to know how to fly before the Army Air Corps accepted them. William Powell, a Jefferson High School teacher who started a flying club here, was among those who taught many of the future Airmen to be pilots.
"One of the most important things to look at in the exhibit is that it is the early aviators, not just the Tuskegee Airmen, who are important in terms of integration," Bunch said.