The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (Bluejacket Books)

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9781591148524: The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (Bluejacket Books)

Jesse Leroy Brown was born in 1926 to sharecroppers in the segregated South. An outstanding student and top athlete, he set his sights on becoming a Navy pilot despite the resistance of his family and the rampant Jim Crow laws. Brown went on to become the first black man to fly a Navy fighter and make a carrier landing. Based on archival documents and interviews with those who knew Brown, this is both a stirring story of a man breaking historic racial barriers and a thrilling tale of naval carrier aviation and combat.

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About the Author:

Theodore Taylor was born in North Carolina and began writing at the age of thirteen as a cub reporter for the Portsmouth, Virginia Evening Star. Leaving home at seventeen to join the Washington Daily News as a copy boy, he worked his way toward New York City and became an NBC network sportswriter at the age of nineteen. Mr. Taylor is the author of a dozen books for young readers, among them the award-winning The Cay. He lives in Laguna Beach, California, with his wife, Flora.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter OneColumbus, OhioSeptember 1944

Daisy Pearl Nix, Jesse's girlfriend, went to the train station with him that early evening and Fletcher Brown, twelve years old, showed up as well. He'd sneaked away from Kelly's Settlement and hitchhiked to Hattiesburg to see his big brother off. While Jesse was pleased, he knew Fletcher would have to return to the farm in darkness. He also knew that Papa John would not take kindly to the adventure. So Jesse sent Fletcher home.

He stood on the platform with Daisy, holding her, teasing her about hearing that Ohio girls were a lot more friendly than ones in Mississippi. A lot more sexy.

"You just keep away from them," Daisy instructed. "You write me every single night. And I don't want to know anything about those girls."

After lingering kisses, he entered the segregated "darky car," which he'd have to ride through Tennessee and Kentucky until it reached the border of Ohio. He found a seat and made a sign to Daisy through the window glass. She was wiping her eyes and mouthing, "I love you." He smiled back and told her the same.

The train left on time and rocked through the night. He'd always taken buses to go places inside Mississippi. He looked around at the black faces in the car and wondered if the white cars up ahead were different. Do they have nicer seats? Better toilets? This one was old and creaky. He knew there were dining cars on many trains. Where do the Negroes eat? Do they have a separate section? Oddly enough, he'd never asked anybody about that. When, oh when, will segregation stop?

He'd bought a new copy of Popular Aviation at the station newsstand. He hadn't read the magazine in a long time. The issue was devoted to carrier warfare. While the train pounded north, whistle and bell cleaving the night at crossings, trackside lights flashing into the cars, clacks of steel on steel, Jesse read about the pilots and planes and air battles against the Japanese in the Pacific. By 2 A.M., when he fell asleep, he'd made up his mind about what he definitely wanted to do-fly off flattops. Have Negroes ever flown off aircraft carriers? I'd like to try.

The train chuffed into Columbus a little before dawn. Most of the black passengers had waited until Columbus to move forward. Jesse bought a penny postcard at the station and mailed it.

Mr. Issac Heard
Stone Building, Room 4566
Hampton Institute, Virginia

Dear Ike:

I've just arrived in Columbus. But it is still dark and I don't know how things will look. Will write soon.

Your pal,
Jesse

Jesse's cousin Ike had gone to Hampton in August, pleased that Jesse had decided on an architectural career but disappointed that he wouldn't be in Virginia. He was convinced that Jesse would have a tougher time at Ohio State. He thought Hampton would have given him a track scholarship.

At dawn Jesse came out of the station with two cardboard suitcases and walked to the boarding house at 61 East Eleventh Avenue in the heart of "colored town." it was friendly territory beginning with Ma Jenkins, who owned the three-story clapboard building. Five other Negro students were living there, as well as a nurse and a secretary.

A letter from "Professor" Nathaniel Burger, Eureka's principal, awaited:

Good luck, Jesse. Students here at Eureka High will be eagerly following your progress at OSU. Negro youth has been starved for heroes for such a long time. As the first of our graduates to enter a predominately white university, you are our hero. Our hopes and prayers are with you.

As a black man, Burger knew what problems Jesse would be facing.

Jesse read the letter twice. Hero? Good Lord! I've got enough on my back already.

In bed that night, listening to new sounds, smelling new smells, Jesse knew he'd made the right decision but also knew that tomorrow he'd have to confront an entirely different way of life. OSU wasn't tiny Lux, wasn't Kelly's settlement. OSU had thousands of students, 99 percent white.

Ma Jenkins had said, "Hattiesburg, Mississippi, eh?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"We had a country boy from Mount Olive two years ago and he got so homesick he headed back to Mississippi in less than two months. Don't let that happen to you. Keep your mind on your books. An' if you get a troubled mind, talk to me 'bout it."

"Yes, ma'am."

His mind was troubled already, though he wouldn't admit it to Ma Jenkins.

"One bit o' advice. Make as many white friends as you can. You'll be livin' in Milk o' Magnesia world an' make no mistake 'bout it. Don't depend on black brothers an' sisters. There won't be many. They got their own problems."

"Yes, ma'am."

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen."

"You'll grow up here in a hurry."

Ma Jenkins was beefy and lighter in color, but she reminded Jesse a little of M'dear Miz Addie, Daisy's mother.

In three of his four classes in the College of Engineering, there were no black students, but to his surprise Jesse didn't feel any particular animosity aside from being ignored. Half a dozen white students had openly welcomed him and two white girls had even sat with him at lunch outdoors in the autumn sunshine the first day.

Finally, on the third day, one of the girls, Sarah, a junior, said, "Why are you purposely separating yourself, eating out here alone? None of my business, of course."

"Habit, I guess."

"I hope you don't think that anyone is going to get up from a table just because you sit down. It could happen, but I don't think it will. Negroes have been students here for many years. Don't make yourself special." He was trying not to-unsuccessfully.

Jesse ate in the campus union building with them the next day and one of the brothers, a boy from Indiana, joined them. Though still uncomfortable, he felt more relaxed.

But in some ways Columbus wasn't much different from Hattiesburg. None of the restaurants on High Street, next...

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