Legacy comes alive at College Park Aviation Museum
By Jenna Bloom
Barry Briscoe is a pilot, but that’s not why he went to the Aug. 12 unveiling at the College Park Aviation Museum. Briscoe showed up because his grandfather, George P. Briscoe, worked at the city’s airport alongside other men from Lakeland, a historically Black community in College Park.
Barry stood with 12 other descendants of Lakeland residents whose contributions to the early history of airmail had gone largely unnoticed until the museum installed a panel in their honor. The Lakeland Connection and Legacy panel, which is now part of the museum’s airmail exhibit, identifies five Black men in an early photo of the airport’s mail service crew.
The museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto a stretch of trees, right beyond which lies Lakeland; this is a particularly resonant view, as the community and the airport have been interconnected for over a century. The College Park Airport is the world’s oldest continually operating airport and the site of the first United States airmail service flight, which took place 104 years ago, on Aug. 12, 1918.
The panel is part of the “Delivering America: Airmail to Email” exhibit, which opened in 2018 to mark the airmail service’s centennial. The interactive exhibit invites visitors to explore the history of the U.S. Airmail service and learn about the College Park Airport crew that put those early flights in motion.
“When we think of aviation, we think of the superstars … and yet, here in College Park, over 40 people worked here … together to make history,” said the museum’s director, Kevin Cabrera.
Cabrera began as director in May 2020, and he found the photo of the crew during the pandemic, while he was digging deeper into the museum’s holdings. He was familiar with Lakeland, and he had a hunch that the unidentified Black men in the photo may have lived there, which prompted him to delve deeper into the community’s history.
Cabrera contacted Violetta Sharps Jones, a historian and vice-chair of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, and she searched genealogy records and other documentation in an effort to identify the men. In a parallel effort, Cabrera and his colleague James Schmidtt found the crew’s payroll records, which helped them determine the men’s jobs, salaries and length of employment.
Sharps Jones discovered records for more Lakelanders who served at the airport than are included in the museum’s photo, and she provided bios for those men, as well. So far, Sharps Jones and Cabrera have confirmed the names of 11 Lakeland residents who worked at the airmail station.
“As I do more and more genealogy, I see that the connections are so deep,” Sharps Jones noted. She said she wants the College Park community to know that Lakeland and its many residents hold an important place in the city’s history. Lakeland was established in the 1890s and thrived as a tight-knit Black community for decades. Generations of Lakelanders lived in the neighborhood until the city destroyed 104 of the 150 single-family homes there as part of an urban renewal project in the 1970s. About two-thirds of the community’s residents were displaced.
The city is assuming responsibility for damages to Lakeland as a result of the urban renewal program. In February 2021, the City of College Park established the Restorative Justice Steering Committee, which is tasked with developing a path forward for a full commission that will implement a restorative justice process for Lakeland.
Zoey, Zaiya and Elijah Brooks Jr. joined 10 other descendants of Lakeland’s airmail workers at the event. The Brooks siblings, who range in age from four to 10, are the great-great-grandchildren of George Brooks Sr., a Lakeland community leader who served on the airmail crew. Their father, Lester Brooks, noted that his children were honored to share a last name with someone who contributed to aviation history. Lester Brooks grew up in Lakeland but moved out when he was 19 because of urban renewal. He said that finding out his family’s connection to the airport’s mail service history came as a “pleasant surprise.”
The museum’s updated panel is only one step on the path to ensuring justice for Lakeland. Mayor Patrick Wojahn echoed this, ensuring event attendees that the city is “doing everything [it] can to preserve and restore the Lakeland community and give back to Lakeland residents.”