Breaking Down Barriers

As with any social change, acceptance of blacks in aviation jobs was slow. Pushed by the justice system and various civil rights organizations, over time, beginning near the end of the 1950s, African Americans were allowed entry into coveted commercial airline positions, with a few pioneers leading the way. They were men and women who had prepared themselves for these opportunities through training and education, and who had the courage to be among the first to enter what was sometimes hostile territory.

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Dave Harris pilot

Captain David Harris
Dave Harris was the first African American in the cockpit for a major passenger airline. Harris joined American Airlines in 1964 flying the DC-6 aircraft. After rejections from several other major airlines at the time, Harris wanted to avoid any misunderstanding down the road. Following his interview with American, Harris recalls, “I felt compelled to tell [the interviewer] I was black.” The chief pilot who conducted the interview responded, “This is American Airlines and we don’t care if you’re black, white or chartreuse, we only want to know, can you fly the plane?” He retired from American in 1994 as a captain, flying American's largest airplane at that time, the wide body MD-11. A humble man, Harris made this statement at a ceremony in his honor: "I'm honored and humbled by this award … but the reality is that there were 500 pilots -- Tuskegee Airmen -- who were qualified for airline jobs when they left the service. None of them received an opportunity to sit in a cockpit. There is no way I should be the first; it should've happened long before 1964." Harris was featured in a Smithsonian Museum exhibit called "Black Wings." The American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has a permanent exhibit honoring Harris. He remains an active member of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).

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