The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum maintains the world’s largest and most significant collection of aviation and space artifacts, encompassing all aspects of human flight, as well as related works of art and archival material·1 s. It collects, preserves, studies, and exhibits artifacts, archival materials, and works of art related to the history, culture, and science of aviation and spaceflight and the study of the universe.
As you embark on this immersive journey, be prepared to be captivated not only by the aerospace artifacts that grace the museum’s galleries but also by the stories of resilience, innovation, and the unyielding pursuit of dreams. The National Space and Air Museum invites you to experience the intertwined narratives of flight, African American pioneers, and poetic visionaries like Paul Laurence Dunbar. Through their collective legacies, we are reminded that the sky is not the limit, but a starting point for human aspiration and the pursuit of the extraordinary.
Delve into the major African American figures featured in the museum:
Paul Launrence Dunbar
The Wright brothers, the pioneers of aviation, had a brief time working for Black newspapers with their high school classmate, the renowned Paul Launrence Dunbar.
Paul Launrence Dunbar is a poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, also one of the first African American poets to become nationally recognized. He began the Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper targeting the local Black community. The Wrights are hence hired by him to print the issues.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.Her aspiration was to open an aviation school for Black people to enter the industry.
Inspired by European women who served as combat pilots in WWI, Coleman studied at a prestigious aviation school in France, from where she obtained a pilot license. After returning to America, she became a flight show performer and an activist for refusing to perform in sites where Black people are forbidden to use the front door. She died at 34 while preparing for a show. Her dream of opening a Black aviation school came true after her death in 1929. Her friend and fellow aviator, William J. Powell, launched the Bessie Coleman Aero Club after her name. The story of Bessie Coleman and other African American aviators are exhibited in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery on the second floor of the museum. This gallery contained an impressive, eclectic assortment of aircraft and exhibits. All exhibitions are related to people who pushed the existing technological or social limits of flight.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American soldiers to successfully complete their training, enter the Army Air Corps, and combat in WWII. Almost 1000 aviators were produced as America’s first African American military pilots. Although military leaders were hesitant to use the Tuskegee Airmen in combat, the airmen eventually saw considerable action in North Africa and Europe. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen proved to the American public that African Americans, when given the opportunity, could become effective military leaders and pilots.
Written by Tina Zhang