- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
As I write this, 130 schoolchildren in Houston are preparing to fly to our nation’s capital. My life and theirs became intertwined only two weeks ago, but our connection has been forming for the past five decades.
Our lives are connected by a 45-ton, $80-million piece of machinery, a Boeing 737-800 jet. Christened the Capt. Marlon Green, this plane has been named after my father, the first African-American pilot hired by Continental Airlines.
But my father’s story is about more than just being “the first.” Continental CEO, Chairman, and President Jeff Smisek succinctly summarized his story at the ceremony naming the plane on February 9 . Continental refused to hire my father in 1957 after he applied for a pilot’s job with nine years of Air Force experience “for one reason and one reason only – because of the color of his skin.” ”He sued us,” Smisek said. ”We fought him. We fought him for six years. He had to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court . And he won.”
This story unfolded when I was a small child. Although the actors in the story included such national figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy, I probably understood little at the time of courts or lawyers. But I did understand discrimination. I knew that my interracial family looked different from all of our neighbors. And I knew that those differences had a lot to do with the stresses, economic and otherwise, in our household.
Once my father retired from Continental in 1978, it never occurred to me that we would have anything further to do with the company. That part of our lives was over. It was a huge surprise, therefore, when towards the end of January we heard that my father (who died last year) was being honored by having a plane named after him.
What was I to make of this gesture, coming from my father’s former adversary as well as employer? This was no small honor. (And no small plane!) Only a handful of planes in Continental’s fleet of over 300 aircraft bear names, and then only of past company presidents. But what did it mean? Perhaps as a psychic defense against revisiting my childhood, I found I could best wrap my brain around this by taking on my adult identities as historian and as teacher.
The historian in me saw this as an event symbolizing the transformations our society has witnessed in the past 50 years. My father’s story has not been unknown (lawyers regularly study it as part of Civil Rights law, for example), but there had never before been any public acknowledgment by Continental that, as CEO Smisek phrased it, he “blazed the trail of diversity” that transformed the airline industry.
The teacher in me saw those 130 Houston schoolchildren. What was to be their story? How could we turn History into a template for the future? The Continental pilots who conceived the tribute had themselves already come up with the answer: the children would be visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and seeing not simply the “Black Wings” exhibit there-which chronicles the stories of aviators from Bessie Coleman on-but exhibits about every aspect of the aerospace industries. My role, as I saw it, was simply to be a link from my father’s generation to theirs and cheer them on.
In my comments at the naming ceremony, I praised the plane as a “living exhibit,” a record of my father’s story that would fly all over the country, touching the lives of every airline employee and passenger who encountered it. But the real meaning of this event may be more than that. As one of my own former students said to me, “This [plane] will become part of the economic fabric of our country, part of its transportation infrastructure.” And isn’t that the kind of monument we need now?
Photo in the upper right is courtesy of the Library of Congress
Tuskegee Airmen: http://speakequal.com/tuskegee-airmen/
Capt. August “Augie” Martin was the first black airline pilot in the United States.
Perry H. Young Jr., an aviator whose career spanned more than 50 years and who was the first African-American pilot for a commercial airline in the United States.