As a farm boy growing up in Oklahoma around the turn of the 20th century, James Herman Banning dreamed big. He dreamed of one day touching the sky. But how could Banning, a young African American boy, find a plane much less locate someone who could teach him?
In a new children’s picture book “Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States” (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021), author Louisa Jaggar shares Banning’s story of pursuing a dream that would ultimately span 3,300 miles in 21 days across one nation. Jaggar, who lives near Washington, D.C., is the co-founder of Greatest Stories Never Told, a nonprofit that shares the untold stories of minority and women STEM heroes.
Jaggar weaved together more than seven years of research, including personal accounts written by Banning himself and an interview with Banning’s great-nephew, to create this account of one individual’s historic mission to become the first Black man to fly from Los Angeles to New York City.
We spoke with Jaggar about her desire, along with co-author Shari Becker and researcher Pat Smith, to make sure Banning’s life and legacy weren’t forgotten.
Why do you think James Herman Banning’s story is relevant for children today?
So many children are taught that the heroes who shaped America were white. But we know that is not the real America. Our America is filled with heroes from all ethnicities, genders, religions and sexualities. During our research, we found over 90 articles written about Banning. In 1932, he was a superhero to many people. Yet most people have never heard his name because 89 of those articles we read were published in African American newspapers. Books such as “Sprouting Wings” give all children the chance to see themselves in the heroes who shaped our country.
What inspires you the most about Banning and his quest to take to the sky in flight?
I admire so many things about Banning—most of all that he built his own plane to earn his solo hours and gain his pilot’s license. Would you build your own car in order to earn your driver’s license? No pilots would let him fly their planes because he was Black. But that prejudice didn’t stop him. He ordered a Jenny Biplane manual that gave instructions on how to put an airplane together. He took parts from crashed biplanes and parts from salvaged automobiles and built a flightworthy craft. Wow! Think of the ingenuity combined with passion and determination.
What are some of the ways you hoped to capture this idea for children in this book?
We were gifted with the artistry of Floyd Cooper (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for his illustration work), who captures Banning’s emotions so completely and beautifully in the illustrations of “Sprouting Wings.” All of Banning’s dialogue in the book is taken from his own words and the many articles he wrote about his journey. We also wanted to capture Banning’s love of flying from the time he was a child and throughout his adulthood.
What was it like to interview the aviator’s great-nephew for this book?
I had a fabulous time interviewing Philip Hart, a truly gifted storyteller. Philip Hart shared family stories and made me and researcher Pat Smith feel as if we were getting to know Banning personally. He gave me permission to write the story, and it was an honor to do so.
How were you able to connect with this individual for your research?
Philip Hart had written a number of articles about Banning. We called and asked if we could meet with him. We were able to meet with him numerous times. Meeting in person was a gift because it’s rare to be able to interview a relative or someone with such a close connection to your subject.
What were some of the challenges and surprises you encountered along the way in your research and writing?
Challenges? There are three different death certificates for Banning. Each had a different cause of death and told a different story. We had to slow down and research carefully to find the truth. Checking and double-checking sources was crucial. One of the best surprises that came our way was when Pat Smith found Thomas Cox Allen’s manuscript in the bottom of a mouse-chewed box in the attic of an Oklahoma museum. Allen was Banning’s mechanic on the flight, and he wrote down all the details of the flight as well as all the names of the people who donated and helped along the way to make their historic flight possible.
What is the biggest takeaway you hope to leave with readers of your book?
When communities come together, they can do almost anything. Twenty-four communities and over 72 people made the Banning flight possible. The second takeaway is that some of the heroes who contributed to the Golden Age of Flight were Black men and women determined to follow their dreams. They did so even though their paths were filled with people and laws that tried to hold them down on what to them was “freedomless ground.” Banning was resilient, showed grit and worked incredibly hard for his dream—that might make three takeaways. Being resilient is important in life and particularly important when you fly against the odds.