A part of Prince George’s County’s history includes various slave plantations now transformed into suburban subdivisions occupied by thousands of Black residents.
And land near the current Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro established Black history when it comes to aviation, according to photos and documents from the College Park Aviation Museum.
“I am a straight, cis gendered white guy. Throughout history, there’s a ton of documentation about people who look like me and belong to the same communities as me,” said Daniel Graham, education coordinator at the museum. “But when you look into the history of Black aviation, not only were there just fewer people who had these opportunities, there is less documentation. As historians, we have to look harder to uncover these stories.”
The museum hosted a virtual lecture Saturday, Feb. 20 on the history of Black aviation in the county.
C. Alfred Anderson, a Black pilot who flew in a piper cub plane for Eleanor Roosevelt, taught other African Americans to fly in the D.C. area and established The Cloud Club in 1940. He also taught Black pilots at Howard University in Northwest and Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Four of his students, John Pinkett Jr., Roland Brawner, Link Johnson and Harold E. Smith, combined their resources to build an airfield on a 450-acre potato field in Croom, an unincorporated neighborhood in Upper Marlboro. The airport, which they named Riverside Airfield, became the first Black-owned and operated licensed airport in the country in 1941.
Devon Valera, an educator with the College Park museum who conducted the recent lecture, said Robbins Airport in Robbins, Ill., garners the designation as the nation’s first established Black airport but it lacked having a civil aviation authority license.
But thanks to John W. Greene Jr., the Prince George’s County airfield became an established place to not only teach Black pilots but served as a community center. However, some of Greene’s personal information remains unknown including his exact date of birth.
“We think he was born in Georgia in 1898 although he’ll change the numbers around a bit in his documentation later in life,” Valera said.
He graduated in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University in Virginia, then moved to Massachusetts and enrolled at the Boston Trade School where he received an airplane mechanics degree.
He garnered several accomplishments for African-American aviators including becoming the first pilot in Massachusetts in September 1930; the first to receive a mechanic’s license for civil aircraft in 1931; and the third in the nation to receive a transport pilot’s license in 1935.
Word traveled to Greene about the need for an instructor to teach a new aviation mechanics program at Phelps Vocational School in D.C. in 1940, the same year The Cloud Club began its operations in neighboring Prince George’s County.
When he arrived in D.C., the club needed an instructor for Riverside Airfield and Greene stepped in. During World War II, the U.S. Navy took control of the airfield. The Cloud Club managed it for only a few months, Valera said.
When the Navy decided to release Riverside Airfield in 1945, Greene and Coleridge Mason Gill, a member of the Flying Physicians in D.C., bought it and reopened it as Columbia Air Center.
“The change of name really reflects their change in priorities from this just being an airfield into being a community center,” said Valera who noted that the airfield often hosted motorcycle races and local dances.
While there, Greene established the Columbia Squadron of the civil air patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force to teach middle and high school students. According to the museum, it became the first African-American squadron on the East Coast and “maybe even the country.”
Greene retired in 1954; the Columbia Air Center closed four years later in 1958.
The museum restored a gas pump housed at the original airfield which will be showcased as a new exhibit to highlight the history of Black aviation in the county.
“It really serves as a reminder that this history is not forgotten,” Valera said.
For more information, go to http://www.collegeparkaviationmuseum.com.