Oscar Holmes broke three color barriers in his lifetime, although he never set out to become a pioneer. Holmes was not only the first Black air traffic controller, he was also the U.S. Navy’s first Black commissioned officer and the military branch’s first Black pilot.
Holmes was born January 31, 1916 in Dunbar. W. Va. He attended West Virginia State College and graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1936. Three years later, he obtained a master’s in the same discipline from Ohio State University. Holmes became a chemistry professor at South Carolina’s Claflin College but quit because the pay was low.
Moving to Erie, Penn., Holmes took a power company job and entered a federal civilian pilot training program. Holmes long desired to fly and was already an excellent student. He excelled in the program and in 1941, he was hired by Civil Aeronautics Administration as an associate air traffic controller in New York. Promotions at the position were scarce so Holmes quit and joined the Navy a year later.
Due to his light complexion, his fellow servicemen and superiors thought him to be a white man. The branch commissioned Holmes as an ensign, thus making him the official first Black Navy officer. The Navy probably would not have given him the commission had they known his actual race. Even after discovering their administrative gaffe, the Navy chose to ignore the issue.
Although Holmes and the Navy knew he was Black, other officers and officials didn’t so he was able to move about and advance. He completed a training program and became the Navy’s first Black pilot. After leaving the Navy in 1946, Holmes earned two degrees from Brooklyn Law School and opened a part-time practice. He was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and retired as a high-level hearing officer in 1973. Holmes would never take to the skies again.
Holmes settled in the Washington. D.C. suburb of Mitchellville, Md., passing in 2001. He was survived by wife Augusta and three adult children.
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