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Ask a historian: Who was The Black Eagle of Harlem?

February 25, 2020 John Manbeck
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Tom of Marine Park asks: “I heard stories about a pilot called The Black Eagle who flew out of Floyd Bennett Field when it was an airport. Do you know any more about him?”

He was a most flamboyant individual, Tom. His full name was Hubert Fauntleroy Julian. An American newspaperman named H. Allen Smith named him “The Black Eagle of Harlem.” His biography is a good topic to explore during Black History Month.

Born in Trinidad in 1897 to a wealthy plantation owner, Julian got hooked on primitive aviation from the start. He embellished his life story with tall tales and bravado. Emigrating to Canada, he sought out Billy Bishop, the Canadian flying ace, for flying lessons, determined that he would fly across the Atlantic before Lindbergh. But things did not quite work out that way.

Coming down to America, Julian settled in Harlem, posing as an officer in the Canadian Air Force and a famous parachutist. When he finally learned to parachute, he floated down over Harlem playing “Runnin’ Wild” on a saxophone. By 1924, he had raised enough money for his flight from New York to Liberia, but the seaplane took on water and crashed into Flushing Bay. Nevertheless, his self-promotion continued.

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Moving his base to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the only official airfield in New York City, he planned other unsuccessful transoceanic flights in the 1920s. Then he sailed to Ethiopia in the 1930s where he impressed the emperor, who rewarded him by naming him commander of the country’s small air force. His activities earned him notice in The New York Times, The Brooklyn Eagle, The Amsterdam News and Smithsonian magazine.

By 1939, Ethiopia was invaded for the second time by Mussolini’s Italy. With the Italian invasion, Julian left for a colonel’s rank in Finland, which was being invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940. As the Russians swept in, Julian flew back to America, had a short film career in Hollywood. He then served in World War II as a private and earned American citizenship.

During the war, Julian—offended by racial comments made by Herman Goring, the Nazi Luftwaffe commander—challenged Goring to an aerial dogfight. The challenge went unanswered, but at home, praise was lauded on Julian for his boldness. Then he joined William Powell’s Five Blackbirds, an all-black flying troupe.

As the country settled into peacetime, Julian had other plans: he registered as a licensed military arms dealer. His clients in Central America included the military leadership of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala and the Batista government in Cuba, as well as Tshombe, the secessionist leader in the Congo. For these moves, he attracted the attention of the FBI and the CIA. Forces from the United Nations imprisoned him for four months.

Returning to America a wealthy man, Julian made friends with Muhammed Ali and appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” He died in 1983, recognized as an important but overlooked African-American.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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