John W. “Johnnie” Greene (Courtesy Photo)
For Black History Month, the ‘AFRO’ presents a series of articles highlighting important community heroes. This week we sit with the College Park Aviation Museum to learn the history and challenges that local Black aviators faced.
College Park Airport is the nation’s oldest continuously operating airfield, yet visitors might be surprised to find a display at the adjacent museum detailing challenges local Black aviators faced in the 1930s. “Colored people, learning to fly and liking it in spite of racial prejudice, find mastery of flying technique and regulations to be the least of the problems confronting them,” wrote Alfred Edgar Smith in the Dec. 14, 1940 Baltimore Afro-American.
A College Park Aviation Museum exhibit prominently shows Smith’s red-lettered quote in the middle of a room detailing the story of seven Black aviators and their search for a home airfield.
During the mid-to-late 1930s, Pennsylvania-born flight instructor C. Alfred Anderson trained students at fields in northern Virginia. District garage owner Noble D. Butler financed Arlington Aviation Field, with Anderson as the primary instructor. But their few supporters were no match for the negative response from the community and they shut down the operation.
A seasoned Boston mechanic and Anderson associate named John W. Greene, also a pilot, taught aviation mechanics in the District at Phelps Vocational School in 1940. Howard University had already hired Anderson as its civilian pilot training program instructor; he flew students at Hybla Valley airport, near Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.
A few months before Anderson arrived nine Black men had formed a flying club at Hybla Valley. The group included John Pinkett Jr., Roland Brawner, Arthur Wilmer, Alvin Barnes, Barrington Henry, Link Johnson, and Harold Smith. When the manager isolated the club to a remote corner of the airfield, it soon dissolved. They reformed as the Cloud Club in the spring of 1940 at Virginia’s Beacon Airfield.
Beacon’s airfield manager prohibited the club from using Black flight instructors. Smith described the club’s plight as an expulsion prompted when too many “dark faces appeared at Beacon.” Tuskegee lured Anderson away from Howard about the same time, seemingly ending Howard’s flight program.
As the Cloud Club searched for a new home, they found a suitable location on the bank of the Patuxent River in Maryland. An Eastern Shore farmer named Rebecca Fisher leased 450 acres to the club for $50 per month. Renamed “Riverside Field,” operations began in early 1941 with “Johnnie” Greene at the helm. It “became the site of the first licensed African-American operated airfield in the state…,” reads an exhibit display. Howard’s pilot training resumed operation with Cloud Club instructors at Riverside.
Jazz legend Jimmy Lunceford was a club enthusiast and promoter. Other members highlighted in the display include Dr. Coleridge Gill, “Little” Willie Adams of Baltimore, and Herbert Jones.
There were 11 airports operating in and around D.C.; with most Cloud Club members residing in Northeast and Northwest Washington. Museum assistant director and exhibit architect Rob Verbsky wondered why they traveled so far, and his curiosity led to the creation of the exhibit. “I’ve always been interested in aviation,” Verbsky said, adding that the history of the Cloud Club “jumped out at me as an interesting and unusual story.”
The exhibit will be open until December 2016, but the museum is looking for ways to preserve it and possibly send it on the road, said Verbsky.
To read all the articles in the AFRO’s Black History Month series go to afro.com/section/hallowed-grounds