Ensign Jesse Brown, First African American Naval Aviator, 1948

In October 1948, Jesse LeRoy Brown made history by becoming the first African American naval aviator. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1926, Brown was inspired to become a pilot by an airshow that he attended at age six. After graduating from high school, Brown attended Ohio State University, the alma mater of his hero, Jesse Owens.

Brown completed his engineering degree in 1947, and then entered naval flight officer training. In October of 1948, Brown received his naval aviator badge. Ensign Brown served in the Korean War and was the first African American pilot killed in combat in the Korean War when his airplane crashed into a Korean mountainside in December of 1950. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

African Americans have fought in every US conflict since the Revolution, but it wasn’t until 1948 that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military, mere months before Ensign Brown joined Fighter Squadron 32.