An iconic photograph from the spring of 1941 shows First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with her trademark hat and toothy smile, sitting in the cramped passenger seat of a small airplane cockpit. In front of her, in the pilot's seat, is a smiling black man named Charles Alfred Anderson.
Anderson and his distinguished passenger might have been smiling, but the Secret Service agents on hand in Tuskegee to protect Mrs. Roosevelt decidedly were not. Over their strong objections, the First Lady didn't just pose for the photo-op, but went on a 40-minute flight that convinced her once and for all that the idea of African Americans not being able to fly was as absurd as it sounded.
It was a timely revelation, because unbeknownst to anybody in on hand that day, Pearl Harbor was just a few months down the timeline.
In fact, Charles Alfred Anderson was already a veteran pilot years before his publicity flight with Eleanor Roosevelt. Fascinated with aviation from his childhood days in Pennsylvania, he had earned his private pilot's license in 1929 and his commercial license in 1932 -- the first and only African American to have been granted that distinction.
He wouldn't be alone for long.
Anderson had started a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute in 1939; not long after the First Lady's visit (coincidentally or otherwise), Tuskegee would be selected by the U.S. Army Air Corps -- predecessor of today's Air Force -- to test young black men for their competence as pilots.
Anderson would go on to train some 1,000 pilots at Tuskegee. What emerged from that program was the Fighting 99th squadron of the 332d Fighter Group - forever to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military pilots of World War II. Anderson, as their chief flight instructor, would thus be known as "Chief" for the rest of his life.
Chief returned to giving civilian flying lessons after the war. In Anderson's 1996 obituary in the New York Times, one of his former students, later to become an engineering professor at Tuskegee, described his mentor's remarkable flying skills: "While other pilots might be able to gauge wind direction mostly from instruments," Vascar Harris told the Times, "Mr. Anderson could tell from looking down on ponds and fields, seeing how the water and the corn rippled and which way the cows were facing."
Next month, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a special commemorative stamp in honor of Charles Alfred "Chief" Anderson, in the famed pilot and flight instructor's hometown of Bryn Mawr.
"Nobody ever came along and said, 'Let me take you for a ride,' because nobody around him flew," Chief's son, Charles Alfred Anderson Jr., told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "His inspiration was looking up into the sky and seeing airplanes."