Grover C. Nash could fly a plane with the best of any pilot of his day. Seventy years ago yesterday he made history during National Air Mail Week. This is the story of a poor farm boy from Twiggs County, Georgia who piloted his plane into history as he became the first African American pilot to fly and deliver the U.S. mail.
Grover C. Nash was born in Dry Branch, Georgia way back on April 4, 1911. He was the seventh child and third son of Joe and Annie Nash. No one alive seems to remember what his life was like as a child, but history tells us that it had to be tough.
Nash marveled in wonder when he saw planes flying overhead. Like most boys of his day, Grover dreamed of flying like a bird. But being black and being in the South, his chances of getting to fly in an airplane were just about as slim as his sprouting wings and flying on his own power.
Grover Nash went North in hopes of attending flight training classes. The color of his skin prevented him from being accepted. But in 1931, Grover was accepted into flight school. A graduate of Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago and Moores Flying School in Dayton, Ohio, Nash had earned a Master Mechanics certificate within two years. Flying his own plane, a midwing monoplane he dubbed Little Annie, Grover Nash honed his flying skills under the tutelage of Roscoe Turner in St. Louis. Turner, a World War I pilot, was a champion racing pilot in the 1930s. He also studied under John C. Robinson, who was one of the founders of the Challenger Aero Club, one of the first black pilots organizations.
Tuskeegee Institute was supposed to be the destination of Nashs first long distance flight. Flying with him would be Col. Robinson and Cornelious Coffee, two of the nations most famous pilots. The trio were engaging in a southern tour to Birmingham, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, as well as stops in St. Louis, Terre Haute and other cities in Illinois. While they were approaching Decatur, Alabama, Robinson and Coffee had to crash land their two-man plane. Being the junior members of the group, Coffee and Nash remained in Decatur, while their leader went on to address students at Tuskeegee. Nashs disappointment vanished when he returned the following year to visit the renowned black educational institution.
Nash made headlines in January 1935 when he gave a dazzling exhibition at an air show celebrating the seventy-second anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a lieutenant of the Military Order of the Guards and a member of the Challenger Aero Club, Grovers reputation in Chicago continued to grow. To help pay the bills, Nash managed the service department for a chain of automobile parking lots in the Chicago area and operated his own flight school for six years.
A well-experienced private pilot, Grover C. Nash was somewhat of an automobilist. In 1937, Nash set out from his Chicago home to visit a sick relative in Los Angeles. Driving with little or no pauses, Grover made the 2,448 mile trip in 48 hours for an average of 50.8 miles per hour, a record for any automobile at the time. It wouldnt be the only time that year that Grover Nash would take a long trip to see a relative. When Grover left home in 1929, he promised his daddy that one day he would return home in a plane. There was much joy that day in Dry Branch when Grovers monoplane came over the tree tops and landed on the red clay soil of home.
The United States Postal Service established National Air Mail Week in 1938. As a part of the celebration, an experiment was conducted to determine the feasibility of picking up and delivering air mail throughout small cities and large towns throughout the country. It was early in the afternoon of May 19, 1938. Excitement was escalating in Mattoon, Illinois. It was the first time the citys mail would be flown to its recipients around the state and the country. As Nash landed his Davis monoplane in Mattoon, he was greeted by the post master, the police chief, city officials and somewhere near one hundred curious onlookers. Grover was given a heros welcome, a tour of the city, and dinner at a local cafe. Nash stashed about seven hundred more letters inside his plane and headed off to Charleston, only ten minutes away.
Charleston had never had airmail service either. But, Grover Nash couldnt have dreamed that his reception there would dwarf the welcome he received on his first stop. An estimated eight thousand people crammed the runway of the citys first airport. A band played. The crowd cheered. Nash waved to his adoring admirers. After waiting out a severe thunderstorm, Nash took off at 5:45 for Rantoul with another two thousand letters. An astonished Nash later told a reporter for the Chicago Defender that no one seemed to notice his color along the way - especially the hundreds who pressed him to autograph their letters. It was, however, the first time that an African American had carried U.S. mail through the air. And, on that day, Nash made the longest flight and carried more letters than any of the 146 pilots, before returning to Chicago, five minutes ahead of his scheduled arrival.
Five months later on Halloween Day, Grover Nash joined hands in marriage with his sweetheart, Miss Lillie Borras.
A group of black pilots in the Chicago area organized as the National Airmen Association of America in an effort to stimulate interest in aviation and understanding of aeronautics. On August 16, 1939, a petition was filed to incorporate the organization in the state of Illinois. Naturally, Grover C. Nash was among the founding directors. The Airmen staged the first national all black air show in United States history earlier that summer.
During World War II, Grover Nash served his country as mechanical instructor at the US Army Air Force Aircraft Mechanical School. He spent sixteen months as an instructor for the Army Air Force Training Command. In his first ten years of flight, Grover Nash logged more than 3,000 flight hours in thirty different types of aircraft. In 1943, Nash was the only black instructor at Keesler Field in Mississippi and Lincoln Air Base in Nebraska. After the war, Nash was a member of the faculty of Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, where he taught before his retirement to Los Angeles.
While visiting his relatives back home in Twiggs County, Grover Nash died on August 10, 1970. He was buried in the church cemetery of White Springs Baptist Church. Ten years after his death, Grover Nash was honored in the exhibit Black Wings in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Scott Thompson is a local attorney and avid historian.