Blakey, Delaware black aviators reached for the sky

Surrounded by images of former black aviators, retired state Rep. Don Blakey and his wife Dolores walk across the aircraft ramp at Delaware Airpark in Cheswold. (Special to the Delaware State News photo illustration/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — During World War II, young Donald Blakey dreamed of being a pilot like the ones flying in and out of Bolling Air Field near his home in Washington.

He learned to identify each aircraft by the distinctive sound of its engine. He imagined his grandmother’s sewing machine was his very own instrument panel. He fostered his dream with visits to the nearby Navy Yard during open house events where he had the chance to climb into the cockpits of captured enemy aircraft.

Yet, as the well-known story of the Tuskegee Airmen illustrates, the skies were not very friendly for young men and women of color in those days, either in the military or civilian life. In fact, most African Americans didn’t even travel by air because of segregation, combined with the prohibitive cost of flying. The Golden Age of Flying, the 1950s and 1960s, was not a golden opportunity for everyone.

Regardless of attempts to change that, like the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate the nation’s schools, many states resisted change. Racial separation persisted into the 1960s; schools in Kent and Sussex counties remained segregated until 1963.

Still, many dreamed. A rare few even nurtured those dreams long enough to make them a reality. Mr. Blakey, a retired state representative, who now lives in Dover, was one of them, and he knows of only two others in Delaware who lived the dream of being African-American aviators at that time. They were Judge C.P. Houston and Coleman Mosley.

Donald Blakey, of Dover, umpired and officiated high school baseball, basketball and football games to pay for flying lessons.
(Submitted photo/Donald Blakey)

The late C.P. Houston undoubtedly broke through many barriers to achieve his dreams. He was the first and only African-American judge in Kent and Sussex counties. He had been a music teacher at the segregated William Henry Comprehensive High School in the 1950s and became a high-ranking officer in several African-American fraternal orders, including the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Because of his role in the national affairs of Alpha Phi Alpha, Judge Houston was inspired to pursue his pilot’s license. Free from the discriminatory practices of the airlines, “traveling by airplane gave him more time at his destination to take care of fraternal business all over the country,” Mr. Blakey explained.

Judge Houston also shared ownership of a plane with a few of his partners, which they used not only for business, but for pleasure. “We would often fly to Jersey for breakfast or lunch. When the weather permitted, during the hot days of summer, we would fly to the air show in Reading, Pennsylvania,” Blakey recalls.

Coleman Mosley was an electrician for then-Delaware State College when young Mr. Blakey arrived as a student in 1954. When Mr. Blakey returned in the early 1960s to become assistant professor of Health and Physical Education, he and Mr. Mosley became friends.

“Coleman was an inventor, master-tinkerer and whiz of all things mechanical and electrical. There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t think his way through,” Mr. Blakey said. “His whole house, car and college workspace were a maze of gadgets he created.”

Beyond all that, Mr. Coleman also designed and built his own flying machines in his workspace at the college. He would then take to the skies over Dover in his creations. Those adventures came to an end when one of his homemade ultra-light planes was caught by a gust of wind at Delaware Air Park in Cheswold and ended up in the trees.

Although he was badly injured, Mr. Mosley’s interest in building airborne vehicles was not. He continued to build

From a young age, Donald Blakey could identify a plane by the noise the engine made. (Submitted photo/Donald Blakey)

aircraft in his garage on Queen Street in Dover, turning his attention to helicopters; even building and flying his own. “Even at his advanced age,” Mr. Blakey said, “Coleman still dreams about mastering the art of flight.”

It was that dream of Coleman Mosley’s that led to the fulfillment of Donald Blakey’s boyhood dream. “One day during his lunch break,” Mr. Blakey remembered fondly, “Coleman invited me to go to the local airport where he was taking flying lessons. The flight instructor, Armand “Rocky” Larocque allowed me to sit in the back seat during the lesson. My aviation career had begun,” he said, his face beaming with the memory.

But it wasn’t going to be a smoothly paved runway for Mr. Blakey. Not because of segregation, but because his wife, Dolores, had a firm grip on the purse strings. In order to pay for his flying lessons and not affect the family budget, Mr. Blakey began umpiring and officiating baseball, basketball and football games part time for the segregated high schools.

“I also helped Floyd Durham create a ground school at Delaware Airpark by teaching student pilots, in return for flying time,” he said.

Mr. Durham was the owner of the Delaware Airpark at the time. Mr. Blakey went on to train for his commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating, enabling him to fly for hire.

Donald Blakey talks about his longtime interest in aviation. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

When General Foods (now Kraft Foods) moved to the area in 1964 and ILC Dover was contracted to make space suits for NASA the following year, Floyd Durham’s airpark was perfectly positioned to start a commuter air service. Dover Air Trans, as it was called, began making daily flights to Westchester County, New York, with stops in between, to transport company executives to and from their headquarters.

Mr. Blakey, too, was perfectly positioned. He began helping with the new enterprise, checking weather, and even cleaning the multi-engine commuter planes just for the opportunity to ride along. He was inspired to pursue his multi-engine pilot rating to prepare for the possibilities. One day, the regular co-pilot didn’t show up and Mr. Blakey was asked to fill in. “He never got his seat back,” he recalls.

Preparing for possibilities is what fulfills dreams. The young man who pretended to fly his grandmother’s sewing machine, the college electrician who built his own aircraft and the magistrate and officer of a national organization able to fly around a racially divided country, would likely agree. They didn’t look long at obstacles. They looked for opportunities to rise above them and even the sky was no limit.

Dee Marvin Emeigh is a Milford-area freelance writer.

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