by Rev. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.
Eugene “Budd” May was born in Jackson, Tenn., in 1923. His family lived on the Frank Calwell farm. While he was picking cotton, Eugene could be seen gazing in the sky at airplanes passing over. He was fascinated and dreamed he would one day fly an airplane.
Eugene and his siblings were expected to pick several hundred pounds of cotton on a daily basis. Eugene would weigh in at 25 pounds on the average. When asked why Eugene fell short, his sister, Betty May Williams, spontaneously reported, “Budd spends most of his time watching airplanes instead of picking cotton.”
When Eugene finished the eighth grade, he started out on his journey to become an airplane pilot. Dismissing the culture of a segregated society and rampant discrimination against people of color, he went to the local McKellar Airport, where many Jacksonians were taking flying lessons. He was told nobody in the South would teach him to fly because he was colored. He then went to St. Louis, only to be rejected again.
Undeterred by the second rejection, Eugene moved to Gary, Ind., to continue his search for someone to teach him to fly. He had a lightbulb moment when he read of the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago. This school was organized and conducted by Cornelius Coffey, who was the first African-American to establish an aeronautical school in America. This was the opportunity Eugene had long for. He thought nothing of walking 10 miles in the cold, ice and snow to take flying lessons in the Windy City.
Eugene’s hard work and determination paid off. In 1948 he earned his private pilot license and began to “touch the sky.” In 1963, he purchased his own airplane, a 1951 Chrome Swift Global Airplane. That airplane is like the Rolls Royce of sporting planes and is stored at the Gibson County Airport.
The Blackhawks of Memphis (an organization of black pilots and professionals in aviation) heard about Eugene through Morris Fair, a retired educator in Jackson. Morris had heard of Eugene in 1955, when a classmate told him his father was a pilot and flew airplanes in and out of California. Sixty-two years later, Morris and Eugene were living in the same assisted-living community.
Ruth Greer of Lane Chapel CME Church, in Humboldt, Tenn., was instrumental in having the Blackhawks make a Black history presentation to the youth. During that visit in 2017, Morris told several members of the Blackhawks that he knew a black pilot who was flying airplanes before the Tuskegee Airmen. This information generated a great deal of interest and led the Blackhawks to secure the much-deserved recognition for Eugene.
On Aug. 4, the Blackhawks invited the general public to witness the bestowal of the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award upon Eugene May. This award is given by the Federal Aviation Administration to individuals who have demonstrated aviation skills, professionalism and safety for 50 years or more. The little boy, who once stood in the cotton fields of Madison County dreaming to fly, did so for 70 years without an accident. Eugene “Budd” May truly exemplified the pilot’s motto: be sure to have as many safe landings as you have takeoffs.
At 95 years of age, Eugene May was celebrated and he could hear the compliments and feel the fellowship thanks to the leadership of the Memphis Blackhawks; Morris Brown; Thelma Rudd; Lane College president Dr. Logan Hampton; Loraine May Gill and Betty May Williams (sisters of Eugene); Morris Fair; and a host of family members and friends.
I shall forever wonder why this award was not given at the McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport in Jackson or why Eugene did not store his Chrome Swift Global Airplane at McKellar-Sipes?
This is the first in a series of periodic columns by the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., pastor emeritus of New Sardis Missionary Baptist Church.