“We aren’t anything new. We aren’t reinventing the wheel. People of color have been active in skydiving for a long time, but it hasn’t been captured anywhere. Our goal, among other things, is to preserve that for posterity.”
In March of 2014, six Black folks met in Georgia to celebrate their friendship and to skydive… Nope, this is not a setup for a joke about Black folks and skydiving. This is the real deal and so are they. That 1st jump eventually became their 1st Annual Record Jump and those six African-American skydivers, who linked up in a “Black Star” formation, eventually became known as “Team Blackstar Skydivers.” Compelled to combine their love of skydiving with a desire to give back to their communities, Team Blackstar Skydivers now represents over 170 skydivers in six different countries!
As a global organization, Team Blackstar states that their first goal “is to increase African Diaspora participation in skydiving by sharing our personal experiences, hosting events, partnering with drop-zone owners, non-profit organizations, schools, community, and religious groups.” And partner they have. Team Blackstar has worked with numerous community organizations including Legacy Flight Academy and the Indian River County Boys & Girls Club in Sebastian Florida, and they’re open to many more opportunities.
The casual observer has to be reading this and ask, “why?” What purpose does it serve to get more Black folks to sling their perfectly good bodies out of a plane? In a 2018 blog post, founding member Danielle Williams, who is also the founder of Melanin Basecamp and Diversify Outdoors, answers this question by stating:
“I am acutely aware of my race whenever I look at glossy photos of skydivers in Parachutist magazine; searching row after row of White faces trying in vain to find someone who looks like me. That’s exactly why I helped create Team Blackstar Skydivers; so men and women of color could see look at a photo of skydivers and see themselves represented. We’re building a space where People of Color aren’t just tolerated but celebrated. Team Blackstar gave me the freedom to stop pretending I don’t notice when I’m the only person of color at my drop-zone. Yes we see Color. And we realize the lack of diversity isn’t a neutral thing.”
So, in short, the answer to why it’s important to diversify skydiving is that representation matters. Not only does representation matter, but dreaming or the option to do things you’ve never thought possible is the precipice to achieving things you’ve never thought possible.
So where are Black folks and why aren’t we clamoring to skydive? The answer again is that representation matters. In a recent issue of Parachutist, the official publication for the U.S. Parachute Association, Williams suggests that African Americans have always been skydiving. “We aren’t anything new. We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” she says. “People of color have been active in skydiving for a long time, but it hasn’t been captured anywhere. Our goal, among other things, is to preserve that for posterity.” In pointing out the long history of Black aviators and parachutist, Danielle is right on the money. Some of the aviators paving the way for today’s parachutists include Bessie Coleman, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, and Walter Morris.
Bessie Coleman is best known for being the first woman of African-American and the first of Native American to hold a pilot’s license. What many may not realize is that she was also an avid parachutist. As a matter of fact, her death on April 30, 1926, was largely blamed on the fact that she did not have a seat belt on when the plane went into a spiral. Her lack of seat belt was due to wanting to check out the terrain for a skydive she had planned the following day.
Hubert Fauntleroy Julian
Interestingly enough, many of airshows in which Bessie Coleman flew in parachutist Hubert Julian also performed in. Trinidadian born, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, was also known as “The Black Eagle of Harlem.” The name was given to him after his numerous jumps over Harlem in the 1920s, where he played a gold-plated saxophone or wore finely tailored and colorful suits. He was the ultimate showman and it garnered him an audience with celebrities from Marcus Garvey to Muhammad Ali. He also met Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and incidentally was asked to leave after he crashed Selassie’s favorite plane.
Walter Morris, an Army serviceman during the attack on Pearl Harbor, served during the time of segregation and as such was relegated to guarding the parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia. A natural leader, he gathered the other black soldiers in his command and begin training them in the same exercises they saw the white paratroopers doing. One day, his commanding officer was driving by and noticed 50+ Black soldiers completing paratrooper exercises and he pulled Morris aside to let him know that the Army was looking to create a new, all-black parachute company. After completing OCS, Morris became one of the first Black paratroopers in the Army. He is now considered an original member of the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Company, which was activated Dec. 30, 1943.
In looking at the history of Black Skydivers and the future of African Americans in skydiving, you may notice the same theme again and again – representation matters and owning our stories matter too. Why? Because collectively we’ve been here and we simply need to remember and share the bravery of those who came before us, in order to garner enough courage of our own to take a leap.