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'Segregated Skies' tells the story of the first Black pilot for a commercial airline

David Harris became the first Black man to fly a commercial airliner when he was hired by American Airlines.
Courtesy of David Harris/National Geographic
David Harris became the first Black man to fly a commercial airliner when he was hired by American Airlines.

When American Airlines hired David Harris in 1964, he became the first African American pilot for a commercial airline. The story of how he broke the color barrier in the clouds is the subject of the young adult book Segregated Skies by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cottman.

/ National Geographic
National Geographic

At age 87, David Harris doesn't fly anymore — and he misses it.

"It's the greatest job in the world. I flew and flew and flew and was ready to fly more in my life," Harris says wistfully. "I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old."

The first inkling Harris had about a career flying airplanes came when he was growing up in Columbus, Ohio. He and his brother used to visit the Lockbourne Air Force Base. That's where the decorated Tuskegee Airmen were stationed after World War II. At the time the armed forces were segregated.

"My brother and I would run around the base and enjoy the facility and never paid any attention to the fact that all the people on the base were Black," he remembers.

Harris got to know some of the famed airmen. He says they would've been "excellent" as pilots "for major airlines in the U.S.A, but nobody would hire them."

Even though President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, racism within the airline industry persisted. "There were certainly people who were saying 'Well, a Black man cannot fly an airplane,'" says Lyn May, who was married to Harris when he began his training for the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s. She says, despite the racism he faced, Harris stayed focused. "To learn to do something while you know there are people around you who think you are inherently incompetent takes great verve, great courage, and David had that," she says.

Eventually, Harris became a captain in the U.S. Air Force flying B-52 bombers. After six and a half years in the military, he applied to be a pilot at several commercial airlines. Harris biographer Michael Cottman says only American responded. "He'd been rejected by some airlines. Other airlines just didn't get back to him. I think there was one airline that didn't even take his application. So, by the time he got to American Airlines, I think this was about it," says Cottman.

David Harris, now 87, says he would have loved to keep flying. "I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old."
Travis Dove / National Geographic
National Geographic
David Harris, now 87, says he would have loved to keep flying. "I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old."

As a light-skinned African American with green eyes, Harris was often mistaken for white. Cottman says that during the American Airlines interview, Harris went out of his way to set the record straight. "He stopped them and just said, 'Hey, look, I just want you to know, before we proceed, that I'm Black,'" says Cottman, "Because he is so proud of his heritage that he didn't want to pass as white."

Cottman says that what the recruiter said next stunned Harris. "He says, 'You know, I really don't care if you're Black, white or chartreuse, can you fly an airplane?'"

Within three years, Harris was a captain with the company.

But the skies were not always friendly. In the 1960s, racism was still rampant. Peaceful Civil Rights demonstrators were attacked and beaten. Like so many others, Harris was inspired by the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke often about the need for both the private and public sectors to help rid the country of racism.

A few days after King was assassinated in 1968, Harris and a co-pilot were flying into Washington, D.C. They could see the black smoke rising from the riots on the city's streets. As they approached the landing, Harris says his white co-pilot started talking. "He was making all kinds of nasty comments about King," Harris says, "and I sat quiet in the other seat."

"Quiet" because the two of them were responsible for landing a plane full of passengers. "You're in the cockpit with the crew and you've got to get along and work professionally and not get into verbal fights airborne," he says.

It wasn't the first time Harris bit his tongue. During training for American Airlines, he had a roommate who was constantly making racist remarks. Harris figured, if he spoke up, it might hurt his chances of getting his wings. "I felt that if I stir the pot ...," Harris says, "and being the first [African American pilot] with a major airline, they would have probably showed me the door. So I learned to live with it and move on."

Once Harris was established with American Airlines, he started mentoring young African Americans — men and women — who were interested in flying. "Reaching back and helping others to succeed, that's what I'd like for my legacy to be," says Harris.

Among the many who credit Harris with helping them take flight is Guion Bluford, Jr., the first African American in space. He writes in the Afterword of Segregated Skies, "because of people like David...the path was opened up for others like me to follow in their footsteps."

Still, there is "much room for improvement" within the commercial airline industry, says Harris. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 93% of pilots are white, and the vast majority of them are men.

The audio and web editions of this story were edited by Meghan Collins Sullivan.

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Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.