Traveling Aviation Museum Stops in Lynchburg
The African Americans in Aviation Traveling Museum made a stop in Lynchburg this weekend. The mobile museum is devoted to retelling the history of Black pioneers in aviation. Piloted by Chauncey E. Spencer II and his intern, Tori Hilbert, the museum pays homage to the Black men and women who took to the skies when many told them they weren’t smart enough to pilot a plane.
“I had a 16-year dream to create a traveling museum to give a voice to the voiceless,” Spencer said. “And I chose aviation to do that. … This is part of American history. I don’t believe in being black or white. I believe in being an American.”
Spencer is driving the truck and towing a 1937 Pierce Arrow trailer about 7,000 miles through 18 states on a 25-city cross-country tour. The journey began at Palm Springs Air Museum, in California, where Spencer is a volunteer docent. Upcoming stops include Tuskegee University and the Johnson Space Center.
“History is the roadmap to our future,” Spencer said. “If we don’t understand where we come from, then we’re misdirected on where we’re going.”
Spencer’s father, Chauncey Spencer, is one of the pilots featured in the museum, and his memory prompted the creation of the traveling museum as well as the Chauncey Spencer Academic Motivational Program, with its mission to help students excel in school, while teaching them aeronautics and the history of Black aviators.
Spencer relies on donations along with support from the National College Resources Foundation, which works to lessen the achievement gap to help students get into college.
Chauncey Spencer, the son of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer and her husband, Edward, grew up on Lynchburg’s Pierce Street, and saw his first plane flying over his home at age 11, sparking his passion for flight. At the time, flying lessons at Lynchburg’s airport were not available to Blacks, so Spencer went to Chicago to learn to fly.
In 1939, Chauncey Spencer and Dale White flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C. in a well-worn plane that inspired then-Senator Harry Truman to integrate the military, leading to the creation of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.
The museum’s focus runs from 1917 with Eugene Bullard and ends with the first graduating class of the Tuskegee Airmen in 1942.
In between, participants learn about these important figures in aviation history.
- Bullard became the first Black fighter pilot.
- Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman and first Native American to hold a pilot’s license.
- Hubert Julian, aka the Black Eagle, was the first Black parachutist and the first Black man to fly across the United States.
- James Banning became the first Black aviator to fly from coast to coast.
- William Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in honor of the aviator and established a school to train mechanics and pilots.
- John Charles Robinson was an aviator and activist hailed as the “Brown Condor” for his service in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force.
- Cornelius Coffey was the first Black man to create a non-university-affiliated aeronautical school in the U.S.
- Jesse Brown was the first Black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
- Janet Bragg was the first Black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license.
- Earl Renfroe was the first Black man in Illinois to be licensed as a commercial aviator.
- Benjamin Davis was the commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen.
Spencer will continue to teach the history of how these men and women influenced aviation and fought for their country.
He believes people can learn from their examples by embracing those who inspire them, taking advantage of opportunities, working with each other to achieve goals and having the courage to take risk and make sacrifices for their beliefs.
“I feel proud that I am able to keep my family’s legacy alive,” Spencer said. “Under the toughest situations I will not stop because they wouldn’t want me to stop.”