Philip Hart (Soc’66) remembers discovering photos of his great uncle James Herman Banning in family albums of his mother’s basement. He was wearing flight goggles and posing in front of big planes. Banning was America’s first black aviator to fly coast-to-coast.
“As I grew older I searched in the libraries of my junior high and high school to learn more about James Herman Banning,” Philip says. “I found information about such pilots as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, but nothing on my great uncle.”
It wasn’t until 1982 that Banning and other pioneering pilots were recognized when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum opened the exhibit “Black Wings.”
To fill a gaping hole in the history of black aviation, Philip spent 25 years and nearly $2 million to uncover new information and restore old and damaged film footage from others’ family collections.
Philip, an educator, author and filmmaker, has written several books, including the Scholastic book Flying Free: America’s First Black Aviators, and produced the 1987 PBS documentary Flyers in Search of a Dream, still available on PBS Home Video.
“I am not a trained historian but an active one starting since I was in high school,” Philip says. “I am an expert on black pilots prior to World War II and am an advisor to the Smithsonian Institution.”
To further his knowledge, Philip continues his research daily. He finished an online photo essay titled The Invisible Eagles: Meet Ten of America’s First Black Pilots published by Oxford University Press and is working on a script for Disney to showcase Banning’s flight as a motion picture.
“It’s a never ending story,” Philip says. “I know there is more footage and history out there that eventually I will uncover to bring another part of the story to life.”
Banning died in a plane crash in 1933. Philip never knew him personally but through his research and work believes he has a strong sense of who his uncle was.
Philip never anticipated his childhood curiosity would lead to his career.
“I’ve spent a lot of time and money, but the work is satisfying,” Philip says. “If a 15-year-old boy attends the library he can learn about the black pilots along with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. That’s satisfying to me.”
In addition, his brother Chris Hart is a pilot and the two have flown together all over the country for the past 40 years.
“From my uncle to my brother, my family is probably the longest running of the black aviators,” Philip says.