By Kevin Cabrera

Kevin Cabrera is a public historian and director of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, I moved from California to Maryland to take on this new role. When I arrived, I had the opportunity to walk through the gallery and read all the exhibit panels and learn about the history of the museum. I was in awe of how significant College Park was in national aviation history. 

One airplane caught my attention, the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny. I knew of its importance during World War 1 and soon learned that the airplane played a major role in the establishment of the U.S. Airmail Service. As I began to discover more about that chapter in aviation history, I came across a picture, from 1919, of a local flight crew. The inner historian in me got excited. The picture included both African Americans and Caucasians,  which piqued my interest. Being aware of the racial disparities in aviation at that time, I was curious to learn more about the young Black gentlemen in the photograph. Who were they? What were their names? What community were they from? And how did they end up being part of the airmail crew at College Park Airport? 

airmail min
The crew of the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny U.S. Airmail Service included residents of Lakeland, College Park’s historically Black community. (circa 1919) Credit: Courtesy Lakeland Heritage Community Project

I reached out to Vi Sharp Jones, who lived in Lakeland and is one of the community’s historians. My initial inkling was that the gentlemen would be from Lakeland, due to the community’s proximity to the airport. Vi was able to confirm they were indeed from Lakeland and provided me with their names; Charles J. Johnson, Hans Hill, Paul Hill, George Brooks and Bernie Brooks are among the crew in the picture. They would have been either mechanics or couriers, or perhaps groundskeepers at the airport. In searching our archives, I have not found additional information on the crew. The U.S Postal Museum is conducting additional research about them, and I am looking into records at the National Archives as well. Vi Sharp Jones has helped tremendously and is continuing her search to learn more, too. I hope to share more information about their roles at the College Park Airport and share their stories in our airmail exhibit.