The early days of aviation were dominated by white men. In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, a trip that cemented her as a global icon.
The very next year, a pair of Black men from the Philly area broke another barrier.
In the summer of 1933, Albert E. Forsythe (right) and Charles “Chief” Anderson (left) flew from New Jersey to Los Angeles — and back again — in a plane called “The Spirit of Atlantic City”
By doing so, they became the first Black men to complete a cross-country flight.
Born in the Bahamas, Forsythe was an Atlantic City physician by day and an aviator in his spare time.
Anderson was born in the Main Line suburb of Bryn Mawr. As a kid, he would spot the rare airplane flying overhead and follow it for hours on foot, per the NYT.
That’s how badly he wanted to fly. And he did.
In 1932, Anderson became the first Black person to earn an air transport pilot’s license.
After completing their cross-country journey, Forsythe and Anderson teamed up on several more pioneering flights.
They flew to Canada — a first for Black pilots — and later toured the Americas in a plane dubbed “The Booker T. Washington.”
The fact that Forsythe and Anderson both lived in the Philadelphia region was no coincidence.
As Forsythe later told the Newark Star-Ledger, the only flight school willing to train Black pilots was located in the Philadelphia area.
It’s likely Forsythe was referring to the Flying Dutchman Air Service on Bustleton Pike. The school was owned and run by Ernest Buehl Sr., a former German WWI pilot and aviation legend known as The Flying Dutchman.
Forsythe stopped flying regularly in 1935 to focus on his practice.
But his partner, Charles Anderson, continued to blaze new trails. In 1939, he founded a pilot training program at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.
At the beginning, this program trained civilian pilots
But eventually it became the Army Air Corps’ first training ground for prospective Black pilots.
“Chief” Anderson became the program’s lead flight instructor.
The program received a major publicity boost in 1941, when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited. Disobeying orders from the secret service, she went on a much-covered flight with Anderson.
The 922 graduates of Anderson’s program were dubbed the “Tuskegee Airmen.”
With a stellar record in WW2, the Airmen eviscerated myths about the competency of Black soldiers. They’ve since been the subject of multiple movies and books.
There’s a Mural Arts mural honoring them at 39th and Ludlow in West Philadelphia.