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The photo that launched a thousand emails

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Posted on: February 10, 2022

As we celebrate Black History Month, we are continuing to research and interpret the role of African Americans in aviation history through our work here at the College Park Aviation Museum. Indeed, our goal at the museum is to share and celebrate Black history every day of the year. We look forward to sharing more about the Lakelanders who helped get air mail service off the ground when we unveil a new exhibition later this year.

By Kevin Cabrera

Last year, I wrote an editorial for the College Park Here & Now about a photograph in our “Delivering Airmail” exhibit, here at the College Park Aviation Museum. This photograph of the airmail crew at College Park Airport was taken around 1918 or 1919, and most of the individuals in it had been identified by name. As I shared in my editorial, I was alarmed that none of the African American crew members were also identified. I believe that as a historian with a cultural institution, I have a duty to uncover the full complexity of the past I strive to interpret. The gentlemen in this photo were part of a historic moment in aviation history with the U.S. Airmail Service, which began its civilian service with a flight from the College Park Airport, in 1918. I would see to it that their names and stories see the light of day. 

The crew of the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny U.S. Airmail Service included residents of Lakeland, College Park’s historically Black community. (circa 1919) The previously unidentified crew members are, from left to right: Charles Johnson, Abraham Hill, Paul Hill, Goerge Brooks and Bernie Brooks.
Courtesy Lakeland Heritage Community Project

With the assistance from Violetta Sharp Jones, of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project , I was able to identify the crew members in the photograph, and it was great to put names to their faces. Then I worked, alongside my colleague James Schmitt, to determine their contributions to both the airfield and the Lakeland community. Our work is progressing in a great and exciting way. It seems like every day James, with his great research skills — along with Violetta’s encouragement and support — uncovers more relevant information. I am also happy for James to share his perspective on our work.  

Bio: Historian Kevin Cabrera is director of the College Park Aviation Museum.

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