Lynchburg was home to several Black aviators who played prominent roles in aviation history
By Jodi Helmer
Chauncey Spencer (1906-2002) was just 11 years old the first time he watched an airplane gliding through the clouds over his home on Pierce Street. He started dreaming about becoming a pilot but faced significant obstacles.
Spencer tried enrolling in flight school at the Lynchburg airport but classes were not open to Black students. Undeterred, Spencer, the son of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, moved to Chicago where he worked in a restaurant and spent most of his wages on flying lessons. His time in the cockpit paid off.
“It was during Jim Crow when segregation in the South was in full force and African Americans weren’t permitted to fly,” explains Emily Kubota, curator for the Lynchburg Museum System. “Chauncey Spencer did quite a bit to change that perception.”
Spencer joined a group of Black aviators to form the National Airmen Association of American in 1934. As World War II raged in Europe, Black men were banned from serving as pilots. Spencer, along with fellow NAAA member Dale Lawrence Wright, flew a rented biplane visiting 10 cities from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in the hopes of convincing Congress to allow Blacks to participate in a pre-World War II Civilian Pilot Training Program.
One of their stops included a meeting with then-Senator Harry S. Truman. In 1941, inspired by the skill and bravery Spencer and Wright displayed on their flight, Truman helped establish the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a group of Black military pilots and airmen who fought in the Second World War.
“Even though Chauncey Spencer was one of the founders of the Tuskegee Airmen, he was too old to be a pilot but he was an obvious choice to be a leader,” Kubota says. “He advanced the acceptance that Black men could actually fly planes.”
In 1948, Spencer was awarded the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for service during World War II. It was the highest honor the Air Force could bestow upon a civilian.
Spencer was not the only Black aviator who called Lynchburg home.
Edgar Doswell Jr. (1921-2009) served as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII. Doswell graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in 1945. It was too late to see combat during the war but the Lynchburg resident, who worked as a flight instructor at Preston Glenn Airport, was part of a historic part of the war effort.
Retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin (1964- ) also grew up in Lynchburg. He started training in 1998 after working for NASA for more than a decade, flying two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis and logging more than 565 hours in space.
Kubota notes that people are often surprised to learn that Lynchburg has such a rich aviation history that includes several prominent Black aviators, adding, “The contributions [of Black aviators] have been momentous, especially when you consider all of the obstacles they had to overcome.”
Jodi Helmer writes about food, drink and travel for National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, Huffington Post, AARP and Our State. She lives and works on a hobby farm near Charlotte, North Carolina.
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