Columbia Air Center

Estimated read time 8 min read

John Greene and Columbia Air Center at Croom

*Note: This profile was a part of a report completed in 1984 for the History Division, by the Black History Project, of MNCPPC.

In 1941, the first and only black-owned and operated airport opened in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Its establishment was due directly to the racial discrimination and pervasive prejudices that so permeated the first half of the twentieth century. Its principal founder, John W. Greene Jr. was but one of many pioneer black Americans involved in the early growth of aviation.

Greene was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on December 25, 1901. After completing grade school, his family moved to Elberton, Georgia. He completed high school there and in 1920 enrolled as a student at Hampton Institute in Virginia where he studied mechanical engineering. During this period, Hampton Institute was considered a “normal” school focusing specifically on trade skills.

While a student at Hampton, Greene became “aviation conscious.” Ironically, he got his first close-up view of an airplane when one crashed near the school as it headed toward Langley Field. This close inspection of an airplane spurred an interest in what would become John Greene’s lifelong pursuit.

In 1922, upon completion of his course requirements at Hampton, Greene moved to Boston, Massachusetts. One Sunday, while watching planes fly at a local airport, Greene was offered an airplane ride for a dollar. The offeror was a white pilot operating out of Denison Airport in Quincy, Massachusetts. He was soliciting students for his flying school and offered lessons at thirty dollars per hour. The exhilaration Greene experienced on that first ride was enough to convince him to take flying lessons. The very first plane he learned to fly under Walter Greene’s tutelage was an OX5-WACO.

Greene learned to fly in 1922 but would not be the first black licensed pilot in the United States. Significantly that honor fell to a woman, Bessie Coleman, who would later die in an airplane crash in 1926. By the late twenties and early thirties, the interest of black people in aviation had increased despite the restrictions of segregation.

Los Angeles, Chicago, and the aviation education program associated with Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute were to provide the historical roots of black aviation history.

In 1929, John Greene received his private pilot’s license at Denison Airport. Shortly thereafter, he received a limited commercial transport license at Denison. Like many black pilots during the pioneer days of aviation, Greene’s activities in the field were to expand. By 1933, Greene received a commercial pilot’s license at East Bay Airport.

By 1936, John Greene received certification as an engine and airplane mechanic. By 1939-40, he received certification to teach aviation mechanics in Boston, Massachusetts, and District of Columbia public schools.

While a resident of Boston, Greene was a member of both the Caterpillar and Harvard Flying Clubs. Of Greene, writer Dutton Ferguson wrote the following in a 1938 magazine article:

“True to all aviators, pilot Greene has his pet peculiarities. He always flies bareheaded and wears his parachute. Though he has manned a Pitcairn Windmill and fifteen other types of planes, his favorite is a WACO-F3. Employed at Wiggins Flying Service, Boston, as engine mechanic, he is nothing short of being among America’s top rank pilots in the science of air navigation.”

In 1940, John Greene moved to Washington, D.C. to organize and teach an aviation mechanics program at Phelps Vocational High School. The program began on September 20, 1940. Around the same time, Greene and other black pilots in the Washington area organized their own aviation club, aptly name “The Cloud Club.”

In association with the Phelps aviation students and the Cloud Club, activities such as flying lessons, ground school, and mechanics were expanded to increase community interest in aviation. Cloud Club members were among those pilots using Beacon Airfield in Virginia as their base of operation but were only there for one month. Beacon was white-owned, and the operator did not want black pilots using his facilities. The Cloud Club was accused of various infractions of airport regulations. In an article detailing the development of Columbia Air Center, Greene spoke to the problems he and other black aviators experienced at Beacon:

“The Cloud Club decided that the criticism received from the operators was unjust and instead of business relations becoming better, relations were steadily becoming worse. The only alternative was to operate at some other base. Some other base meant either operating from a field controlled by us. Operating from another white-controlled airport, if we were admitted at all, meant continuation of prejudices experienced at Beacon Field.”

As Greene and the members of the Cloud Club viewed it, they really had no other option. They would have no other option. They would have to secure a field from which they could develop their own airport.

After much searching, an adequate location was found in the Croom area of Prince George’s County, along the Patuxent River. The field was leased from Mrs. Rebecca Fisher by Greene and Dr. C. M. Gill for the Cloud Club. Greene and Gill each owned three aircraft at the time, and it was with these six aircraft that the Columbia Air Center was born.

Recalling that early experience Greene noted:

“When we looked at this place we said, “My goodness-a-life! This is it! And we took advantage of it. Now all these roads were dirt roads when we started here, and we built an office. We built the small hangar, but the big one we had to buy because of the steel, and the steel company set it up for us.”

Initially the airport was named Riverside Airways and was operated primarily by the Cloud Club which had selected Greene as its airport manager. By 1944, Greene was granted authority by the Civil Aeronautics Administration to operate the field as Columbia Air Center.

In 194, the airport renewed its application for a Primary Flying School rating and certificate. In making application, the airport claimed ownership of four aircraft: an Aeronca Champion, a PT-19 Fairchild, a Piper J3L, and an L3 Aeronca. The airport had administrative offices, classroom space and eight runways. Columbia Air Center’s also included a small snack bar and tie-downs for planes based there. Columbia offered charter services and operated from 3:00 p.m. to sunset on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. to sunset on weekends.

The classes in aviation included meteorology, navigation, civil air regulations, aircraft and theory of flight, parachuting, aircraft instruments, engines, and aircraft general servicing. In 1946, there were twenty-five students enrolled in primary classes at the flying school.

John Greene was an avid promoter of aviation education for the young. During the air center’s 15 years of operation, it offered numerous youth-oriented programs. The Phelps High School students received on-site training at Columbia Air Center. In addition to the flying school, there was a Civil Air Patrol Pilot Training Program at the center.

Several private air transport firms used Columbia Air Center’s facilities and plans were made for the expansion of facility operations. By 1950, Columbia was one of the most active airports in Prince George’s County. Although operated by Greene and Gill, daily management was primarily the responsibility of John Greene. Under Greene’s management, Columbia Air Center operated from 1941 to 195. Increasing vandalism and the refusal of the Fisher family to renew the lease on the land led to the airport’s demise.

That year, Greene wrote to Richard A. Jamison, director of the State Aviation Commission, advising him of the airport’s closing. In part, his letter stated:

“…Columbia Air Center is now closed, after continuous operation for the past 10 years. You may recall that I opened the airport in 1940, and it was taken over by the Navy during World War II, and then we reopened in 1944.

“We are closing at this time as our lease expires on November 15 and it will take us until that time to dispose of the equipment which we do not plan to keep.”

“Be assured that my interest in aviation has not waned at all. Having been associated with aviation as mechanic, pilot, and teacher for more than 20 years, I am hoping that this will give me an opportunity to make contributions in other phases of the field.”

John Greene continued his active career in aviation. Today at 87, he is an active member of the Negro Airman’s Association, Washington, DC Chapter, and has received honors and awards. These include recognition by the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the Prince George’s County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, who in 1986 honored Greene with its Pioneer Award.

The field that was once the site of Columbia Air Center is now owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission and is part of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Prince George’s County. A historical marker and an exhibit on Columbia Air Center are now included in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Need Driving Tour. Interestingly, the tour begins at the exhibit site on Columbia Air Center where an airport gas pump still stands among the shade trees, the only remainder of a bygone era and a lasting reminder of black pilots in the development of aviation in Prince George’s County.