Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Romanticism About Flying

BOND: Now, were there in older people, memories of early pioneering flyers, white flyers?

THEUS: Oh, yes.

BOND: And this kind of romanticism attached to it that is passed on to you?

THEUS: Very definitely, very definitely. We of course followed the exploits of --

BOND: [Eddie] Rickenbacker.

THEUS: -- Rickenbacker and [Charles] Lindbergh and all of those, and this, of course, all of this did was to heighten our interest.

BOND: Sure.

THEUS: And then when we saw the opportunity to have hands-on contact with people who flew with the aircraft themselves, of course we took to this and people came out from -- I'm saying people, I'm referring to African-American young men -- came out from Chicago, even, to -- so that they could be on hand to see this. And some of them, some of the pilots who were later in the Tuskegee Airmen experience were those who flew into this field. I'm thinking now of a fellow by the name of Hurd -- what was his first name? It wasn't Jim [James A.] Hurd -- I'll think of it in a moment. But anyhow, his last name was Hurd and the reason it's on my mind is that, he just recently passed away. But he was one of those who was one of those pilots who came out there, and then when the opportunity to fly for the Air Force came, he was one of the first to embrace this and became a combat pilot. Went to Europe with the group and so forth, and then after the war moved back to Chicago. And as I mentioned, we lost him just in the matter of a few months ago.

BOND: Now these barnstormers who'd come, I'm getting a mental picture of a crowd down on the field --

THEUS: Yes, yes.

BOND: The pilots take off, they engage in these barrel rolls and tricks of all sorts.

THEUS: Yes. That's correct, exactly.

BOND: How big a crowd would a typical show attract?

THEUS: Oh well, you see, the reason -- you have to understand that flying was such an attractive sport that it attracted not only the people from the African American community, but people from the white communities all around. And so, on hand there would be several thousand people gathered around out --

BOND: And so, are they charging admission to see this?

THEUS: They did in some cases, and other cases they made their money by having little concessions to sell food and so forth.

BOND: It was really hard to charge admission, you could stand over here and see what was going on.

THEUS: Exactly, so it would be very difficult. But you got in fairly close up for a small admission. Then they're people like Bessie [Elizabeth] Coleman, for example, who had to go to Europe, you know, to get her pilot's license and so forth. She was out there. There were others who walked on wings and attached themselves to the wings of these aircraft and they stood up as the aircraft rolled and so forth. And they wouldn't toss, they wouldn't drop off. But as you know, we did lose some people to that sort of stunt flying. But this was a very popular thing.

BOND: It's hard to imagine now, flying is such an everyday experience. Not actually piloting a plane but being in one is such an everyday experience. It was so rare then, for anyone to have been in an airplane. It had to be one of the most exciting things you could do, or to watch someone take off in one of those flimsy looking things.

THEUS: That's right. But you see, in those days, in those days, Julian, those were not flimsy aircraft. They really looked like -- well, perhaps like space ships look to you today.

BOND: Right.

THEUS: They really looked powerful and state-of-the-art. In fact, I used to amuse myself by making sketches of these aircraft. I just wonder if I still have some of those around. I'm curious about that. I'll have to look. But I did, I drew sketches of aircraft that I saw and to me they were just the most state-of-the-art things that one could imagine, it was really quite interesting.