There was never a dull moment with Trinidadian Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, who came to the world’s attention as the Black Eagle. He was a world famous aviator and soldier of fortune. Julian is regarded as either the first black man to get his pilot’s license or one of the earliest and as a supporter of Marcus Garvey and a showman, he flew his plane over rallies for Garvey, performing aerial stunts.
He unsuccessfully attempted a transatlantic flight from New York to Africa in 1924, and barely survived when his plane crashed into the ocean. He successfully made the trip five years later though.
Julian set the non-stop non-refueling aviation endurance record with a flight of 84 hours and 33 minutes. He also toured with an all-black flying circus known as The Five Blackbirds.
Julian was born on either September 21, 1897 or Jan. 5, 1897 at Charlotte Street, in Port of Spain, and attended Eastern Boys’ School. He earned a pilot’s license in Canada at age 19, and moved to New York in 1921. He claimed he was taught to fly by Canadian World War I ace, Billy Bishop.
On September 3, 1922, Julian performed his first parachute jump at Curtiss Field on Long Island. He would make one more jump that year before teaming up with aviator Clarence Chamberlin who, in addition to teaching him how to truly handle an airplane, flew him up above Harlem where Julian parachuted several times.
Also in 1922, when he was 25 years old, he became the first black parachutist and flew over parades in support of Marcus Garvey. He rechristened himself “Lieutenant Hubert Julian” of the Royal Canadian Air Force and had a tailor fashion for him a fake military uniform in order to push his new narrative.
“In 1924 he announced his intention to fly from New York to Africa and raised funds to buy a seaplane for a transatlantic flight from New York to Liberia. He named the plane Ethiopia I and decorated its tail with the red, black and green colors of the UNIA. He didn’t get any farther than Flushing Bay, into which his plane crashed, but that did not stop him. In 1929 the Trinidadian became the first person of African descent to complete a transatlantic solo flight.”
In 1930, Emperor Haile Selassie invited him to Ethiopia to take part in his coronation ceremonies. Aviation had come to Ethiopia only the year before, with the arrival of a French Potez 25 biplane piloted by André Maillet, but Selassie wanted an aerial display, with a flamboyant performer who would attract the world’s attention.
Julian was just the man. He unexpectedly leapt from Maillet’s airplane, parachuting to the feet of Selassie, who was so pleased that he bestowed Ethiopian citizenship on him, the rank of colonel, and awarded him the Order of Menelik, the empire’s highest honor. However, Julian had less success as a pilot on this mission, crashing the Emperor’s favorite plane, after which he quickly returned to Harlem.
In 1931, Julian became the first person of African descent to fly coast to coast in the United States.
In 1935, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia under dictator Benito Mussolini, the Black Eagle returned to Ethiopia and joined other Africans from the Diaspora who fought to protect the pride of the continent and Independent Ethiopia.
Julian also invented a motorised parachute or the “Airplane Safety Appliance,” an amalgam of parachute and propeller, which allowed him to play the saxophone as he floated through the sky. He called the device the “Saxophoneparachut-tapreresistationist.” He also spent his time stateside traveling with William Powell’s Five Blackbirds, an all-black flying troupe, who performed in the Midwest and California, as well as, performing piloting services for paying customers.
With the Pearl Harbor attack, Julian, now in his 40s, enlisted into the military. He would serve less than a year, becoming an American citizen in the process, and earning an honorable discharge with the final rank of private first class.
He also embarked on a short-lived career as a film producer with the director Oscar Micheaux, helping to fund the distribution for two of Micheaux’s films: Lying Lips and The Notorious Eleanor Lee.
After the end of World War II Julian became a licensed arms dealer to states and militia groups including Moise Tshombe, leader of Katanga during the Congo Secession Crisis of the early 1960s. Julian was detained by United Nations forces for questioning and was jailed for four months before being released.
In 1965, in collaboration with John Bulloch, he wrote his autobiography, Black Eagle. Julian visited Trinidad in the 1970’s and lived in the Bronx for the remainder of his life.
Julian, the aviator, military commander, marketer, spy, showman and cultural icon died quietly at the Veterans’ Hospital in the Bronx, New York, on February 19, 1983. His achievements are largely unknown in his native Trinidad and Tobago.