It took Marlon Green more than six years to battle Continental Airlines to become the first black hired as a pilot fora U.S. passenger airline.
And it took Continental nearly 50 years to publicly acknowledge Green’s contribution to its success.
On Tuesday, that delayed expression of gratitude came in a Houston hangar during a ceremony to introduce Continental’s newest Boeing 737 — emblazoned with Green’s name.
“The fact that we did this shows how regretful we are about our history, and we took the opportunity to honor Capt. Green because it’s important to us,” Jeff Smisek, Continental’s chairman, president and CEO, said in an interview.
Green’s brother, Jim Green, flew from his home near Seattle to attend the ceremony. He said the honor would have pleased his brother, who died in July at age 80.
“He’s looking down from heaven and saying well done — a little bit late, but well done,” Jim Green said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, called Tuesday a day of redemption for the Houston-based airline.
“If we do not remember our history, if we do not understand the pain, then we cannot enjoy the joy,” she said.
Marlon Green and his family suffered a great deal while waging the legal battle that led decades later to the honor Continental bestowed Tuesday at the suggestion of its black pilots.
“He lost his dignity, his honor, his self-esteem, all of his savings, and he was reduced to menial work like cleaning milk cans,” Jim Green said. “He could not understand why society was dealing him this deck. It destroyed his faith and his family.”
Turbulence Before Takeoff, a biography of Marlon Green and his battle to integrate Continental, was published last February.
Only one reason
Smisek frankly discussed the past discrimination by the industry and Continental in his remarks at the ceremony, where guests included dozens of active and retired black commercial aviation pilots and 130 Houston Independent School District students.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Smisek said, the only reason Continental did not hire Green, a retired Air Force pilot, was “because of the color of his skin.” It took a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision to force airlines to hire African-Americans as pilots.
It was an admission, said Pin Oak Middle School student Kaylan Brown, that reinforced the importance of celebrating Black History Month each February.
“It’s great that Marlon Green fought against discrimination because it’s a horrible thing,” she said.
Monica Green, an Arizona State University history professor and one of Marlon Green’s six children, said her father asked that there be no services commemorating his death.
“But I think he would have gotten a kick out of this,” she said, standing before the white jet with her father’s name painted in navy blue near the nose.
When the ceremony ended, the event became the wake Marlon Green’s friends had wanted for him.
Robert Ashby, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen — black combat pilots who served during World War II — traveled from his home in Phoenix and told stories about training Marlon Green in the Air Force.
Willis Brown, a founder of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots and its second president, invited other retired pilots to stay overnight at his Atascosita home.
When the organization was formed in 1976, about 80 black pilots nationwide were working for passenger and freight carriers. Today, the organization has changed its name to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and boasts a pilot membership of more than 700.
Of Continental’s 4,310 pilots, 272, or 6 percent, are ethnic minorities. The company declined to break down that number by ethnicity.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, Continental announced that Capt. Ray-Sean Silvera has been promoted to assistant chief pilot, the first black aviator in the company’s ranks to achieve the high-ranking administrative position.
Silvera had proposed the idea of naming a plane in honor of Marlon Green after learning of his death.
Monica Green thanked Silvera, Smisek and everyone at Continental for making a “living exhibit out of this plane that will carry my father’s story all over the country and, perhaps, the world.”