On this day in 1950, Jesse LeRoy Brown became the first African American casualty of the Korean war. He was also the first African American pilot in the United States Navy. His story is largely unknown, but amazing, inspiring, and saddening all at once.
He grew up in Mississippi. Due to school segregation he had to walk three miles each way to go to school.
When he was six he saw an air show. He was captivated.
He decided that day he would become a pilot.
He was a brilliant student. He became fluent in French. He wrote a letter to a math book publisher, pointing out a mistake in his text.
Even though he was a prodigy, it didn’t change the way he was treated by whites in the area, who often called him “stovetop” and “Ni##er.”
He was determined to go to College, but could not get admitted in any in his area. He decided he would go to Ohio State University, like his hero Jesse Owens did.
While attending college, he was surrounded by 6 men and beaten with their clubs. They repeatedly said to him “Quit trying to be a smart Ni##er.”
They were policemen.
While at Ohio State, he learned of a Naval program to recruit pilots on Campus. He was warned by instructors that the Navy would never accept a black pilot. He would not be deterred. .He performed so well on the entrance exam, they allowed him to the training site in Glenview, Illinois.
He would graduate and become the first African American Naval pilot.
Unfortunately, in 1950 during the first year of the Korean war, he would also become the first African American pilot to die in combat. In 1972, the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown became the first U.S. Naval ship named after an African American.
There is another important chapter to the story: the white flight instructor who helped him graduate.
Roland Christensen was one of the instructors at Glenview. He grew up in Nebraska, and had seen very few black people in his entire life.
When the new candidates arrived, he saw Brown standing by himself, being shunned by the others.
Christensen approached his superior and said, “I’d like to teach the Negro Fella if that is alright.” The response was a laugh and the statement a laugh and a shake of the head.
Christensen approached Brown and said, “You’ll be flying with me today if that’s alright.” He then mentored and protected Brown from the others until graduation.
Photo Credit: Time Magazine
When he was asked why he did it, Christensen said:
“My family lost everything in the Dust Bowl. I was dirty and slept in a card board box. I know what it feels like to be isolated, and I don’t care so much about skin color….I just didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that.”
Wouldn’t you be proud if Roland Christensen was your grandfather????
We get chances all the time to stick up for others, and make sure we end up on the right side of history. Hopefully we’ll find within ourself the partnership of courage and compassion like Roland Christensen.
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