David E. Harris, Trailblazing Airline Pilot, Is Dead at 89


David E. Harris, a former Air Force bomber pilot who at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s became the first Black pilot hired by a major commercial airline in the United States, died on March 8 in Marietta, Ga., about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta. He was 89.

His death, at a hospice center, was confirmed by his daughter Leslie Germaine.

American Airlines hired Mr. Harris in 1964, and he flew for the carrier for 30 years, rising to captain in 1967. In 1984, he made history for the second time with American when he flew with the first all-Black cockpit crew on a commercial airliner.

Before Mr. Harris was hired, airline executives had discriminated for years against Black pilots out of fear that white passengers wouldn’t want to board the planes they flew, and that it would be too difficult to find them hotel accommodations.

“He knew that he was extremely qualified, so on paper he would seem like an ideal candidate to many commercial airlines,” Michael H. Cottman wrote in his book “Segregated Skies: David Harris’s Trailblazing Journey to Rise Above Racial Barriers” (2021). “But once he was brought in for an interview, and a prospective employer saw the color of his skin, he was concerned that he would face disappointment again and again.”

Mr. Harris, who had a light complexion and green eyes, also feared that airline employees might mistakenly think he was white. He decided to leave no doubt about who he was, ending his application letters by writing, “I’m married, I have two children, and I’m a Negro.”

Several airlines didn’t even bother replying.

Another Black pilot, Marlon D. Green, was among the first to fight back in court. He sued Continental Airlines for racial discrimination after he was denied a job in 1957. The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Mr. Green’s favor in 1963; Continental hired him in 1965.

“Marlon Green is part of aviation and civil rights history,” Mr. Harris was quoted as saying in Mr. Cottman’s book. “He paved the way for me and for many other Black pilots who followed.”

In 1964, Mr. Harris received a telegram from American Airlines arranging for an interview in Dallas with the company’s chief pilot. Even after Mr. Green’s legal victory, Mr. Harris still had doubts about whether his qualifications were enough for him to get hired.

“I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings with you or your company,” Mr. Harris told the chief pilot, according to Mr. Cottman’s book. “I am a Negro. I’m a little concerned because I’ve put this in a lot of applications at other airlines and I was turned down.”

“Young pilot,” the chief pilot replied, “this is American Airlines. We don’t care if you’re Black, white or chartreuse. We only want to know this: Can you fly the plane the right way?”

Mr. Harris answered affirmatively.

David Ellsworth Harris was born on Dec. 22, 1934, in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Wilbur Harris Sr., was a plumber, electrician and carpenter who installed service station equipment. His mother, Ruth Arlene (Estis) Harris, managed the household.

Mr. Harris attended the Ohio State University, where he studied education and was a member of the Air Force R.O.T.C. After graduating in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree and an Air Force commission, he began flight training at Bartow Air Base in Florida, where he flew B-52 and B-47 bombers. He retired in 1964 as a captain.

Mr. Harris married Linda Dandridge in 1958. They divorced in 1984 but remained lifelong friends. His second wife, Virginia Lynne Harris, died in 2000. In addition to his daughter Leslie, he is survived by another daughter, Camian Harris-Foley; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 1971, Whitney M. Young Jr., the executive director of the National Urban League and a towering leader in the civil rights movement, drowned while swimming in Lagos, Nigeria.

Mr. Young’s wife chartered an American Airlines plane to transport her husband’s body from his funeral in New York to his burial in Kentucky. Several civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, would be on board. She requested that Mr. Harris serve as pilot.

As Mr. Harris left the house that morning, his wife joked: “For goodness’ sake, don’t screw this up. You’ll wipe out the entire civil rights movement!”

Mr. Harris considered that flight among the most important of his career.

“I was flattered that she requested I fly the charter,” he said. “It was an honor.”

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