Hubert Julian is all over my new book Lost Lions of Judah, about the mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia against the Italian fascist invasion. He was a hell of a character.
Julian’s home overlooked the Harlem River in New York. The Bronx town house was crowded with elephant tusks, vintage rifles, Ethiopian medals, photographs of Julian with Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie, souvenirs from Guatemala, books of newspaper clippings, a menagerie of parrots, and a pet monkey.
On Sundays his extended family turned up for inch thick steaks flown in from South America, with African fruits for dessert.
Julian obviously had money (“I’m richer now than a yacht full of Greeks,” he told reporters) although how much was the subject of conjecture among interested parties. An FBI report from the late 1950s claimed Julian “was subsidised by wealthy white women”. Julian insisted he earned his cash. Both may been true.
Learning to Fly
Julian had no objections to being supported by women even when he had an income of his own. He proved it forty years earlier when he first arrived in America. The madam of a well known Harlem brothel fell for his story of being a penniless medical student. She took Julian into her bed only to discover a few weeks later that her medical student had a suitcase full of cash and no knowledge of medicine. Julian was lucky she never discovered he had crossed the border from Canada in a plush McFarland touring car driven by a white chauffeur.
Julian was born in 1897, Port of Spain, Trinidad to a family of comfortably well off plantation managers. Family money subsidised a private school education, a pre-war trip to London, and a few years in Canada learning French. It was there, in 1919, that the twenty-two-year-old Trinidadian learned to fly. His mentor was William Bishop, a fighter ace at a loose end after the war, and one Sunday in November Julian completed a solo flight to become one of the first black pilots in the world.
Bishop gave him an introduction to a broad-minded pilot in New York State who would provide further training, and the Trinidadian crossed the border to make splash in Harlem society. He got his name in the newspapers with a series of parachute jumps over New York City although the notices turned mocking after one jump saw him crash through a window miles off target and be immediately placed under arrest. Julian had landed in a police station.
The Political Scene
In New York Julian linked up with Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). To publicise Garvey’s Back to Africa ideas Julian offered to fly to Ethiopia in a sea plane and collected money from supporters to fund the trip. When the flight failed to happen he was threatened with arrest for mail fraud and forced into an unprepared attempt from the Harlem River which dumped him into Flushing Bay five minutes after take-off.
The UNIA washed their hands of him and Julian’s career zipped through one scheme after another as he barnstormed for money, gave talks on self-improvement to railway porters, ran bootleg liquor and drugs for New York gangster Owen Madden, tried and failed to start his own Black American improvement association.
In 1930, as the Depression bit hard, Julian caught a break when an emissary of Ras Tafari, an Ethiopian leader about to be crowned Emperor Hailie Selassie, requested his presence in Addis Ababa to organise an air display at the coronation.
The Black Eagle lived well for several weeks until he crashed Ras Tafari’s private plane into tree and was banished in disgrace. Back to New York (“I can state categorically that the Emperor and I were the best of pals when I left”) and more money spinning schemes until the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 returned him to Haile Selassie’s side. The Emperor refused him permission to join the air force and put him in charge of training ground troops.
It didn’t go well. Julian was kicked out of the country for his creative approach to finance: drawing two salaries and borrowing money with no intention of repaying it.
War and Weapons
World War Two was spent in relative quiet by Julian’s standards. He fought for a week in Finland against the Soviet invasion of late 1939, then returned to New York as a Finnish military attaché, in which role he gave interviews but did little else. In 1940 he challenged Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring to a dog fight, which Berlin ignored. He failed to get into the Canadian air force. He sold used cars. Along the way he picked up American citizenship.
It was after the war when newspapers paid less attention to him that things came good. He became an arms dealer.
Julian supplied weapons to the leftist regime of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, finding time to chat with expatriate revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in Guatemala City’s corridors of power. That bit of business did not stop him selling weapons to right-wing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista or repressive Dominican leader Raphael Trujillo.
By early 1962 the expensive Bronx town house was empty. Any FBI agents or angry madams looking for Julian, a towering athletic figure with his chin habitually held up at a forty five degree angle to the rest of the world, would need a plane ticket to Elisabethville in the controversially independent state of Katanga … .
To find out about Julian’s adventures in Katanga read my book:
Julian also appears in my book about Ethiopia:
My other book, about the Spanish Civil War, is available: