Harris broke racial barrier in U.S. airline industry

He lived in metro Atlanta since 2020
David E. Harris, was an Air Force veteran who became the first Black commercial airline pilot in the U.S. in 1964.

Credit: Photo courtesy of American Airlines

Credit: Photo courtesy of American Airlines

David E. Harris, was an Air Force veteran who became the first Black commercial airline pilot in the U.S. in 1964.

David E. Harris soared into history as the first Black pilot to fly for a major American airline and the first Black commercial pilot to become a captain.

Harris achieved trailblazer status with his hiring as a pilot in 1964, not coincidentally the same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex and other factors.

He was always quick to point out that other Black pilots had struggled for years to try to accomplish what he did.

“There is no way I should be the first,” he said. “It should’ve happened long before 1964.”

Harris flew for American Airlines for 30 years, retiring in 1994.

David E. Harris, who became a symbol of achievement in the Civil Rights Movement, died March 8 in a Marietta hospice after a brief age-related illness, his two daughters said.

A Celebration of Life service is being planned for later, most likely in Massachusetts.

Harris, 89, had lived in a retirement community in Acworth since early 2020. He moved there to be close to daughter Leslie Germaine of Kennesaw, Germaine’s mother, and son, Henri.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said in a prepared statement that Harris “inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly.

“We will honor his legacy by ensuring we continue to create access and opportunities for careers in aviation for those who otherwise might not know it’s possible,” he said.

David E. Harris, retired captain with American Airlines, set two benchmarks in a 30-year career. He was the first Black person to be hired as a pilot by a major U.S. airline. And he was the first Black person to achieve the rank of captain.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jared Kudabeck.

icon to expand image

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jared Kudabeck.

Harris first became enthralled with airplanes as a youngster growing up in Columbus, Ohio. He and his brother would visit Lockbourne Air Force Base, where the decorated Tuskegee Airmen were stationed after World War II. Decades later, he would be cited, along with the Tuskegee Airmen as examples of Black achievement during the Civil Rights Movement, The Washington Post reported.

In his junior year at Ohio State University, he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated with an English degree and a commission in the Air Force. He received his wings in July 1958 and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command as a co-pilot on a B-47 bomber. By 1962, he upgraded to flying the B-52 bomber, according to a family-written obituary.

The first all Black cockpit crew in the U.S. on a commercial flight included Capt. David Harris (left), Jim Green and Herman "Sam" Samuels.

Credit: Photo courtesy of American Airlines

icon to expand image

Credit: Photo courtesy of American Airlines

Shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Harris began applying to and was rejected by airlines in the growing commercial industry.

Harris, who was light-skinned, intentionally wrote his race on job applications. “I am married. I have two children, and I’m black,” he recalled later.

After some early disappointment and rejection, he was hired by American Airlines.

American Airlines’ response, which became company lore, was: “We don’t care if you’re black, white, or chartreuse. We only want to know if you can fly the plane.”

At an event in 2008, Harris said, “The reality is that there were 500 pilots — Tuskegee Airmen — who were qualified for airline jobs when they left the service.”

Today, 3% of American airline pilots are Black, a company spokesman said this week.

In his 30-year career with American Airlines, Harris was based in Boston, New York, and Dallas-Fort Worth, where he was an instructor at American Airlines’ flight academy.

Harris told NPR that being a pilot was “the greatest job in the world.

“I flew and flew and flew and was ready to fly more in my life,” Harris said. “I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old.”

He was a founding member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP). Through his volunteer work with the Tuskegee Airman and youth and school-based programs, he encouraged young Black men and women to pursue their dreams of flying.

He said, “I’d like my legacy to be reaching back and helping others succeed.”

Daughter Leslie said that while everyone knew of her father’s passion for flying, they may not have known that mentoring came in a close second. She said he loved being able to help others who wanted to pursue a career in flying.

Daughter Camian “Cami” Harris-Foley said that, in retirement, her father loved sharing the joy of flying his single-engine Socata Trinidad aircraft with others.

“Watching our family mature and spread our own wings also brought great joy to him,” she said. “We lost a great father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather.”

His life was the subject of a book by Michael Cottman for middle schoolers: Segregated Skies: David Harris’s Trailblazing Journey to Rise Above Racial Barriers.

Harris is survived by his two daughters, Camian Harris-Foley (John Foley) and Leslie Germaine (partner John Du Conge), six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.