Five hundred people gathered in the pre-dawn of July 17, 1933, to watch Albert Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson take off from Atlantic City’s Bader Field on what would be the first cross-country flight undertaken by black pilots.
“There was a lot of tension in the air,” said Ralph Hunter, who has researched the historic trip. “People didn’t know whether or not Dr. Forsythe and his partner would have the capabilities to fly that plane from Atlantic City to L.A.”
Smaller gatherings met them as they fueled in Harrisburg, Pa., and other way-stations, according to news reports of the time.
The pair had no lights or radio, just an altimeter and a road map, but they made it safely to Los Angeles and back in their Fairchild monoplane, The Pride of Atlantic City, by September. Upon their return, their “goodwill flight” was commemorated with a parade.
In an era when air travel captivated the national imagination, Hunter said this accomplishment was significant given the institutionalized racism of the time.
“It was a major feat for a black man to even attempt to get a pilot license,” he said. “The thought of an African American even asking a white man to teach him how to fly was unheard of.”
But that’s what Forsythe did.
A doctor established in the segregated Northside section of Atlantic City, Forsythe took time off from his practice to learn to fly from a Pennsylvania instructor.
In 1933, he purchased an airplane for $2,000 and began the process of organizing a series of lengthy flights with Anderson, another black aviator from Bryn Mawr, Pa. News reports stated their first voyage was sponsored by the Atlantic City Board of Trade.
Later flights would see them navigating from Atlantic City to Montreal and throughout the Caribbean.
In 1935, after more than two years traversing the globe, Forsythe returned to his Northside medical practice.
“His first love was to be a doctor,” said Hunter, founder and curator of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Buena Vista Township. “His parents had worked very hard to send him ... to medical school — he wanted to be sure he fulfilled his parents’ dream to help people.”
Forsythe moved his practice to Newark after his marriage in 1952 and retired in 1977. In 1985, he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey at Teterboro Airport. He died in 1986.
The historic flights paved the way for minorities in aviation.
Even though commercial flights were still out of the question for most black pilots, Hunter said their efforts led to the Tuskegee Airmen a decade later. Anderson himself was an instructor at the Tuskegee Institute.
“You can look back and ask, ‘Where would things be if Forsythe hadn’t made that flight?’” Hunter said.
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