On this day in 1926, the first black naval aviator, Jesse Leroy Brown, was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Brown grew up in a very poor family, living in a home without central heating or plumbing.
When he was six years old, his father took him to an air show. This was when Brown first expressed an interest in aviation. At thirteen years old, he worked as a paperboy for a black newspaper, Pittsburgh Courier. While reading articles in the newspaper about black pilots of the time, such as C. Alfred Anderson and Bessie Coleman, his desire to enter the field intensified.
In 1937, Brown wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, outlining the injustice of African American pilots being prevented from entering the U.S. Army Air Corps. However, it did little. The White House simply sent him a letter in return saying that they “appreciate his viewpoint.”
After graduating high school, Brown enrolled at Ohio State University, against the advice of his principal, who said he should enroll in an all-black college. Although only seven African Americans had graduated from OSU the previous year, Brown was determined to fit in with his peers and was ready for the academic challenge.
He worked several side jobs in order to pay for college. By the autumn of 1944, he had saved enough money to buy a train ticket to Columbus, Ohio to begin school. During his second year of college, Brown began to hear about the V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program – a program to commission naval pilots, conducted by the U.S. Navy.
In March of 1947, Brown began training in Glenview, Illinois at the Glenview Naval Air Station, where he received the rank of midshipman. This made Brown the only African American in the program.
As part of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, he was assigned to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Quonset, Rhode Island. Here, he encountered several incidents of racism and discrimination. However, by the time of the Korean War, he had gained such a positive reputation among the others that he was now viewed as an experienced, capable pilot rather than being judged for his race.
In 1950, he was part of a mission supporting U.S. Marine Corps that were trapped by Chinese forces. Although no Chinese planes were in site, it was noticed that Brown appeared to be leaking fuel. It is proposed that the damage was due to small arms fire from Chinese infantry. A fuel line had been ruptured. Brown lost control of the aircraft and attempted to land on a clearing on the side of a mountain top.
Unfortunately, he crashed and was pinned beneath the remains. A rescue helicopter was called, but Brown’s aircraft had already caught on fire.
Brown was the first black Navy officer killed in the war. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, the Air Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.