For decades, historians thought the first Black military pilot was probably Eugene Bullard, an American born in Georgia who fled to France after his father survived an attempted lynching. When World War I started, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion and then the Lafayette Escadrille. But Britain discovered lost records of William Robinson "Robbie" Clarke.
In 1915, Robbie traveled from Jamaica to Britain to volunteer as a mechanic and driver, a very technical, high-demand job. He did so well that he was put forward for pilot's training. Robbie wanted his wings, and he quickly earned them. On April 26, 1917, he earned his pilot's license, weeks before Bullard earned his.
Clarke's wartime career
Clarke's wartime flying career ended early, though. He flew a reconnaissance mission that July. Clarke took the pilot seat while an officer, 2nd Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, served as observer. During the mission, the duo were ambushed. As Clarke told his mom in a letter:
“I was doing some photographs a few miles the other side when about five Hun scouts came down upon me, and before I could get away, I got a bullet through the spine. I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly any more … My observer escaped without any injury.”
Clarke's injuries were severe, but he remained in British service. In November 1917, about four months after his flight, he returned to duty, first with a reserve unit and then with No. 254 Squadron. In 1919, Britain released the first Black military pilot from service.
After the war
As the war ended, traditional racial roles re-emerged across the British Empire. Black service members were pressured to return to their villages. British officials had promised land and livestock to Black soldiers, but they rarely honored those promises.
Racial tensions resulted in some clashes, especially in Toronto, Canada, during demobilization. Soldiers from the Caribbean saw their service deliberately written out of history.
The British forgot about Clarke, who is quite possibly the real first Black fighter pilot. Luckily, a volunteer working on records from the Royal Aero Club found his records. Now, his identification bracelet, similar to American dog tags, are part of the Imperial War Museums collection.
Soldiers like Clarke and Bullard stood fast in the face of danger for democratic ideals. They did so even when their countries shunned them. The rest of us should remember their sacrifice.