Posts Tagged ‘Hubert Julian’

Hubert Julian, in the uniform he often wore around Harlem, May 2, 1924 (New York Daily News / Getty Images)

Hubert Julian, by his own account, arrived in Harlem in 1921.  Born in Trinidad in 1897, he had migrated to Canada in 1914, where he claimed to have learned to pilot an aeroplane and served as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Air Force, and came from there to New York City.  His first appearance above Harlem occurred during the 1922 UNIA Convention, when he flew over the parade in a plane decorated with UNIA slogans.  That flight led to his appointment as head of the organization’s new Aeronautical Department.[1]

Julian first gained celebrity by jumping from planes rather than piloting them.  He made his first parachute jump before an audience of Harlemites the day after the UNIA convention ended, at an airshow for the 15th Regiment at Curtiss Field on Long Island headlined by black pilot Bessie Coleman’s first flight in the United States. Several more jumps followed in the next year, at Curtiss Field and at airshows in Hasbrouk Heights, New Jersey (where he played “I’m Running Wild” on the saxophone during one jump).[2]  However, it was when Julian parachuted into Harlem itself that he garnered headlines.

Julian's first jump in Harlem, April 29, 1923 (Search Event Type="Parachute Jump"; From/To Date="1923-04-29")

On April 29, 1923, a black pilot, Edison McVey, flew Julian from an airfield in Hasbrouck Heights to Harlem, where the plane circled City College, at 139th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, dropping two powder noise bombs to attract residents’ attention – although a failed attempt two weeks earlier and advertising in the neighborhood and around the vacant lot on 140th Street near Seventh Avenue where he intended to land ensured that many had already been watching the skies. Then Julian leaped from the plane in a vivid red suit; the wind carried him away from his target to the roof of a tenement at 301 West 140th Street.  A large crowd followed him, packing tightly enough into the street to damage several surrounding stores, and then carried Julian to the UNIA’s Liberty Hall – but not before a police officer charged him with disorderly conduct.  Addressing the crowd, he spoke about aviation, promoted a parachute he had designed, and urged them to support A. I. Hart, a black-owned department store under threat from white competition. [3] On November 5, 1923, Julian was again flown to Harlem from Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, this time by a white pilot, to make a jump to advertise a UNIA meeting. He intended to land in St Nicholas Park, but wind carried him instead to the police station on West 123rd Street, as a huge crowd followed. He ended up hanging from his rigging between the station and the next building, until two officers pulled him into the second floor.[4]

Julian's Flight, July 4, 1924 (Search Event="Plane Flight")

In  1924, Julian shifted his focus from parachuting to flying, announcing a planned flight from NYC to Liberia and back. In April he lectured and performed parachute jumps in Boston, Baltimore and Norfolk to raise funds for a Boeing seaplane. Those efforts brought attention as well as money, and in May the Pittsburgh Courier reported that Boulin’s Detective Agency had found Julian lacked any qualifications as a pilot, and could not possibly make the flight. Julian answered his critics in June by bringing the plane he was purchasing to Harlem and putting it on display in a lot on 139th Street. He was scheduled to depart at 1 pm on July 4, from the Harlem River at 139th Street, but the several thousand people who gathered there were kept waiting for hours, while West Indian supporters and UNIA members collected enough money from the crowd to make the final payment on the plane. Once Julian did take off, the flight lasted only a few minutes, until one of the seaplane’s pontoons fell off, sending it crashing into Flushing Bay. This ignominious failure made Julian a joke in the white press, which in turn contributed to increased criticism of him in the black press.[5]

Julian himself remained undaunted, and through the remainder of the 1920s his efforts to raise funds for equally ambitious flights kept him a public figure in Harlem. He joined the soapbox speakers who lined Harlem’s avenues: in 1925, while selling donated safety razors at the corner of 140th Street and Seventh Avenue, he got into a fight with Herbert Boulin, the private detective who had exposed his lack of a pilot’s license, and later worked for Julian’s wife when she sought a divorce. In 1926, police seized Julian’s car after he attached a sign soliciting contributions to the cost of a plane for a flight to Liberia to it and left the vehicle parked overnight, apparently in response to police banning him from soliciting on the street. Julian claimed those backing the flight included a West Indian subsidiary of Standard Oil, boxer Tiger Flowers, and Elks Lodges, but it never took place. In 1928 Julian set up a headquarters for the Hubert Julian Aeroplane Fund at 2196 7th Avenue, seeking funds for a plane to make a round trip flight to Paris. This flight had the backing of State Senator Spencer Feld, but the response proved disappointing, and Feld abandoned the effort after 6 months.[6]

Hubert Julian, arriving in NYC in November 1930, having left Ethiopia after crashing the Emperior's plane. His stylish dress was a trademark, and regularly drew comment from reporters (Corbis)

Although Julian never made a flight across the Atlantic, he achieved enough celebrity to make that journey by sea in 1930, after being invited by the new Emperor of Ethiopia to take part in his coronation ceremony. He impressed his host with a parachute jump that landed at his feet, and was rewarded with a position in the Ethiopian Airforce; the Emperor’s mood changed four months later when Julian crashed a plane gifted to him by Selfridge’s department store during a pre-coronation rehearsal. Julian left Ethiopia soon after, arriving back in Harlem in November, but insisted he had not been banished, successfully suing the Hearst publication the New York American for stating he had been “thrown out.”[7]

In 1931, Julian obtained a pilot’s license and embarked on the air show circuit, barnstorming around the country, appearing, for example, as part of a group of black aviators, the Five Blackbirds, in Los Angelos in December 1931.  Harlem remained his base, and through the 1930s he continued to fly above events in the neighborhood, such as A’ Leila Walker’s funeral procession in 1931, and a parade by Father Divine’s followers in 1934.  His aerial exploits appear to have ended by the 1940s; in later decades it would be Julian’s activities as an arms dealer that brought him media attention.  At some point in these years he joined many other black New Yorkers in relocating outside Harlem; when he died in 1983, Julian was living in the Bronx.

[1] The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, vol 4, ed. Robert Hill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 1059-60.

[2] “Julian ‘Runs Wild’ 3500 Feet in Air,” Amsterdam News 13 June 1923, s.2, 1

[3] “Aviator Thrills Harlem By Descent To Roof of House,” New York Age 5 May 1923, 1; “Julian Jumps From Plane 3000 Feet Up,” Amsterdam News 2 May 1923, 1; “Harlem Sees Devil Drop From The Sky,” New York Times 30 April 1923, 3.

[4] “Negro in Parachute Hits Police Station,” New York Times 6 November 1923, 7.

[5] “Negro Flyer, Off for 4 Continents, Lands in Hospital,”  New York World, 5 July 1924, 1

[6] New York Age, August 7, 1926, 1; Chicago Defender, July 7, 1928, 10

[7] David Shaftel, “The Black Eagle of Harlem: The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian”, Air & Space Magazine, January 01, 2009; New York Age December 30, 1933, 1.


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Our article, “The Black Eagle of Harlem,” has appeared in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, a collection edited by Fitz Brundage and published by the University of North Carolina Press.

The article is a study of Hubert Julian, the black aviator, parachutist and celebrity, considering him as a product of Harlem and the modernity of the 1920s and 1930s.  Julian launched himself into prominence with two parachute jumps over Harlem in 1923 and became a fixture flying over funerals and parades.  He also made an ill-fated effort to fly across the Atlantic in 1924, drawing a crowd of around 20,000 to watch him takeoff from the Harlem River, on a flight that lasted only a few moments before the plane crashed into Flushing Bay.  Successful or not, Julian captivated Harlem as a black exponent of the quintessentially modern marvel of flight.

But Julian’s style proved as fascinating as any of his accomplishments.  He donned clothing ranging from uniforms to the morning dress of an English gentleman, and promoted himself as a spectacle that drew the attention of the black, and on occasion, white press.  He attached himself to Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, and later, Father Divine, had various roles in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, and even co- produced one of Oscar Micheaux’s films.  “On the move, on the make,” Hubert Julian embodied the spirit of the 1920s.

For more, see the post “Hubert Julian in Harlem”

Review of Beyond Blackface: Journal of American History (2013) 99 (4): 1267-1268.

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Soapbox or street corner speakers were a feature of everyday life in Harlem from World War One to the 1960s.  Each year, the appearance of speakers was heralded as a sign of spring, and they were particularly prevalent through the summer months, when the heat led residents of Harlem to spend most of their leisure outdoors.  The first speakers were political orators, with West Indian members of the Socialist Party such as A. Philip Randolph and Richard Moore most prominent. They set up at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, which offered a wide sidewalk and a steady stream of passers-by coming to the surrounding stores or entering and exiting the subway station. Crowds numbering in the hundreds stopped to listen. Marcus Garvey made his debut in Harlem at that corner in 1916, and he and members of his organization, the UNIA, regularly spoke on the neighborhood’s streets throughout the 1920s.

Speakers Corners (Search Place="Speakers Corners")

By 1921, socialists could be found at other corners along Lenox Avenue, and on Sunday evenings, at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. Later in the 1920s, speakers also set up along Seventh Avenue, as it rather than Lenox became Harlem’s main street.  In the 1930s, speakers could be found on both avenues as far south as 115th Street and as far north as 144th Street.

Hubert Harrison, Harlem’s most famous street speaker, began as a socialist, but became famous for his lectures discussing “philosophy, psychology, economics, literature, astronomy or the drama.” [1]  By the mid-1920s, he drew crowds numbering in the thousands.  A reporter exiting the Lafayette Theater on to Seventh Avenue one evening in 1926 encountered “one of the biggest street corner audiences that we have ever met,” an audience whose “faces were fixed on a black man who stood on a ladder platform, with his back to the avenue and the passing buses and his face to the audience who blocked the spacious sidewalk.” [2] It was Harrison, speaking on the theory of evolution.  Harrison died in 1927; no other orator demonstrated his learning or achieved his stature.  For listeners, even lesser street speakers represented an alternative to churches and middle-class organizations, a source of more radical ideas, less constrained by institutional authority.  On the street, speakers were accessible, available for sampling by residents out for a stroll or doing their shopping, who might not otherwise have had the time to seek out orators.  Middle-class critics complained of the ignorance of some speakers, of the misinformation they spread, of the racial hatred they aroused.

Street Corner Orator, 1938 (Morgan and Marvin Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

In the later half of the 1920s, political orators were outnumbered by speakers selling medicine.  Many were East Africans, or West Indians posing as Africans, who attracted crowds with elaborate costumes and performances.  Journalist Lester Walton, who campaigned against such “quacks,” described them in terms that expressed his frustration at the credulity of his black neighbors, but also conveyed some sense of what drew in passers-by:

They lend a theatrical touch to their manipulations by dressing in gaudy costumes of supposedly foreign make, and attractively decorate the platform with multi-colored ribbons, bunting and the like.  Attention of pedestrians is first gained by performing a feat of magic, such as turning wine into water.  Next rheumatism or some other chronic disease is dwelt on and a cure, whose reliability is proclaimed beyond any question, is offered for what is represented to be an amazingly small price.” [3]

Not all those offering something for sale were black.  According to Walton, some of the medicine vendors were whites posing as American Indians. Whites were also among those selling things other than medicine. Edgar Grey reported that Gypsies returned to Harlem’s street corners between 1922 and 1924, establishing ‘shops of astrology,’ while another journalist encountered “a dingy Czechoslovak,” “a provincially dressed peasant [with] a beautifully colored parrot on his shoulder,” and “innumerable Gypsies,” all offering to tell his fortune or reveal a winning number.[4] The first speaker Walton heard in 1928 turned out to be selling a dream book.  Others collected funds for business enterprises: Hubert Julian, the black aviator, could be found in May 1925 at 140th Street and Seventh Avenue selling razors donated to him to pay for the plane he hoped to fly across the Atlantic.

In the 1930s, political speakers returned to prominence, and appeared in new locations, particularly on 125th Street, in the vicinity of Harlem’s major white-owned businesses.  From there, they played a significant role in mobilizing support for campaigns to force white retailers to hire black staff, increasingly speaking on behalf of organizations and at regular times and places. Some, however, also drew on the appeals employed by medicine sellers.  Sufi Abdul Hamid, who arrived in Harlem in 1932, fresh from a successful campaign to win jobs for blacks in Chicago, rallied residents dressed in a white turban, green shirt, black riding boots and a black crimson-lined cape.

[1] Pittsburgh Courier, December 31, 1927

[2] New York News, 1926, cited in Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 94

[3]  “Street Speaker Heralds Spring in Harlem,” World, March 23, 1928, 17M

[4]  Amsterdam News, March 30, 1927, 16; Amsterdam News, August 19, 1931, 9

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