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Mississippi man became first African American pilot

Robyn Jackson | 2/10/2010, 5:01 a.m.
Jesse L. Brown, the first black naval aviator,...

Jesse L. Brown, the first black naval aviator, and the first to die serving his country, was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, but he didn’t really feel like he was leading a movement, said his widow, Daisy Pearl Brown Thorne.

“I don’t think he felt like he was pioneering,” Thorne said. “It was just something he wanted to do.”

Iola Williams, a Hattiesburg Convention commissioner, said Brown’s achievements were significant, even if they are not as well known as the fabled Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

“Jesse Brown’s becoming the first African American naval aviator, at that time in the history of the United States, was the equivalent of the election of our first African American president, not only to Mississippi’s Hattiesburg community but to the nation.

“It not only broke a racial barrier, it introduced a new hope for African American youth that they could do it, too,” Williams said.

Brown was born Oct. 13, 1926, in Hattiesburg, and graduated from the segregated Eureka High School. He wanted to become an engineer and was one of the first black students accepted to Ohio State University.

While there, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserves and attempted to join the U.S. Navy to become a pilot, but the military was one of the most segregated facets of society at that time, Thorne said.

“Every time he took the test, he failed it,” she said. “He would be told that no ‘N-word’ would ever pass that test.”

Thorne said he finally passed it after about five attempts.

After graduating from OSU, he was sent to Ottumwa, Iowa, to attend Navy preflight school. He was commissioned an ensign by the Navy and on Jan. 4, 1949,  joined Fighter Squadron 32, which joined the Fast Carrier Task Force 77 to help the United Nations Forces in October 1950, in Korea.

As a pilot, Brown became a section leader and received the Air Medal for his daring attacks on Wonsan, Chongiin, Songjin and Sinanju.

Brown’s plane was hit by enemy fire on Dec. 4, 1950, and crashed while providing support to the Marines near Chosin Reservoir. In a rescue attempt, Thomas J. Hudner crashed his plane alongside Brown’s, but Brown, 24, was killed in the crash. Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery, and Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage, airmanship and devotion to duty.

The Navy named a ship in his honor, the USS Jesse L. Brown, in 1973. It was decommissioned in 1994 and sold to the Egyptian navy.

Brown is considered a hero today, but it wasn’t always so. Thorne remembers one time when they were standing on a corner in downtown Hattiesburg waiting for the bus, and a carload of white men passed, heckled Brown for wearing “a white man’s uniform,” and said they’d be back.

A few minutes later they were, and they pelted the couple with eggs.

“Now at that very site there’s a building named in his honor,” Thorne said, referring to the Forrest County Tax Collector’s building.

The Browns had one daughter, Pam Brown Knight, who was only 23 months old when her father died in action in Korea.

Thorne said Brown was a humble man, but he would be pleased with all the honors, including a display about his life and military career at the African American Military Museum in the old USO building near downtown Hattiesburg.

“I think he would be very proud,” Thorne said. “He would be humbled. He was a humble person.”

Thorne, who retired from Hattiesburg High School after 32 years as a teacher, shares his story with children on occasion.  

“One of the things I tell them is that regardless of the circumstances you’re born to, you don’t have to stay there,” she said. “Jesse came from a poor family and worked his way out. You can be anything you want to be if you work hard for it.”

Hattiesburg American