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

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In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, he became the first Black pilot for a major commercial airline in the United States.

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.

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