Julian, the aviator from Harlem that challenged the CIA and sold weapons to the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz


During the 1940s the government of the United States imposed a weapons embargo in Guatemala and asked allied nations to refrain from selling any type of military equipment to the government of Juan José Arévalo and, later, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. This left the country short of weaponry during the 1954 US invasion. The only person that defied Washington and sold guns to the Guatemalan government was Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a mercenary aviator who was better known as the “Black Eagle of Harlem”.


Texts: Alejandro García  Design: Dénnys Mejía Illustrations: Luis Pinto

tanding 5’9’’, Julian, with his elegant demeanor and extroverted attitude, was a potent man. He always wore a suit and tie, often donned a top hat, always had thoroughly polished shoes, and he talked with the rhythmic cadence of a British person. He was a refined man who used to tip US$1 for a 75-cent haircut. He passed away in 1983.


orge Mario García Laguardia, a veteran lawyer, born in 1931, remembers that during that week, although there weren’t any shootings on the streets, as Nugent’s book claims, there was a confrontation between Arévalo’s followers and the opposition that demanded his resignation. “Those who supported the government were out on the streets, but it was a mere protest,” Garcia Laguardia, who at the time was a high school student, says. “The country was divided. The two groups, mostly formed by students, collided in the streets. But we were unarmed. It was a civil collision, a collision of protesters,” he adds.


ccording to Billy’s documentary, Julian, inspired by Garvey’s courage, proclaimed himself a pilot and began introducing himself as lieutenant Hubert Julian, from the Canadian Royal Air Force. To support his new identity, he hired a tailor and paid him to make a fake military suit for him.“And it worked?” I ask. “Of course it worked,” Billy says, bringing a greasy and unexpectedly hot chicken wing to his mouth. “This was way before Google. No one could’ve checked if it was authentic.” The restaurant was starting to fill up with people. I pushed my recorder to the middle of the table.

owever, despite being politically agnostic, Mark and Billy agree that Julian would have sympathized with Árbenz’s policies. “Remember, he grew up in a British colony,” Billy points out. “I guess he would support the people’s rights to govern themselves like Marcus Garvey said.”

arlier this year I was reading Bitter Fruit by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. The book recounts part of the Guatemalan Revolution, the so-called “Ten Years of Spring”, and the 1954 US-backed coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.


Halfway through the book, on page 148, I stopped in my tracks. “In 1952, the famed ‘Black Eagle of Harlem,’ aviator Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, slipped twelve 20-mm. antiaircraft weapons of Swiss manufacture into Guatemala,” the book read.


That same year, the president of Guatemala had pushed Decreto 900—an agrarian reform that sought to redistribute idle land, 553 acres or more, to landless and poor peasants. This law, which was considered by Washington as a move against US interests and especially against the United Fruit Company (UFCO), was the beginning of the end of Árbenz’s democratic government and the ten years of spring that started in 1944 with the Guatemalan Revolution. It was in June of 1954 when the UFCO, hand to hand with the Dulles brothers, a handful of mercenaries working for Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under direct orders from the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, launched Operation PBSUCCESS, an American invasion that aimed to remove president Árbenz and eradicate the “communist insurgency in Guatemala.”


In 1952, when President Eisenhower’s government had already been persecuting subversives across the US for years, the fact that Julian sold weapons to Árbenz—who was accused of being a communist—could have been considered an act of high treason.


I put the book down and googled Julian. I found a few articles that mentioned part of his extraordinary life. There were stories about him published in Air & Space Magazine, Medium, The New Yorker, and, of course, his Wikipedia page. In it, his relationship with Guatemala was shortened to a single line.


Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was an aviator, paratrooper, businessman, World War II veteran, and licensed arms dealer. He lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and coincided with renowned artists, athletes, and social activists like Duke Ellington, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey.



 got in touch with the authors of Bitter Fruit via email. Sadly, neither remembers how they found out about Julian and his involvement with Árbenz.


Some time later, on YouTube, I came across a documentary entitled The Black Eagle of Harlem, directed by Billy Tooma—a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker, a teacher at Essex County University and a New York Mets fan. The three-and-a-half-hour movie is a thorough investigation of Julian’s entire life, complete with interviews with journalists, historians, aviation experts, and his only son, Mark Anthony Julian. The film also briefly mentions Julian’s business with Guatemalan officials.



I found out that Mark was still living in Harlem, and that Billy lived across the Hudson River, in New Jersey. Coincidently I was soon going to New York, so I sent Billy an email, and we agreed to meet Thursday, April 26, at 3pm in front of Union Square.



First shipment


 illy and I met in front of Barnes & Noble, on 15th Street. Billy, 5’5’’ tall, had long black hair and was wearing a black hoodie; the early spring sun barely warmed the streets of Manhattan. Billy said Mark was on his way and he started telling me how he got to Julian while making his second film, Clarence Chamberlain: Fly First & Fly Afterward.


“Clarence was the one who really showed Julian how to fly an airplane,” he said. Billy then showed me two books he had in his backpack. The first one titled The Black Eagle was written by historian John Peer Nugent. The second one was a copy of Julian’s autobiography, entitled Black Eagle. Then he asked me if many people in Guatemala knew about Julian.


“I don’t think so,” I answered.


Mark arrived a few minutes later. He was as tall as I imagined his father would be. Mark was wearing jeans, a button shirt, and New York Yankees cap. “You take that off while you’re with me,” Billy said, pointing at the hat.


The three of us walked a few feet by the park and went inside a Korean restaurant that materialized in front of us. The place was called Barn Joo. We ordered chicken wings, dumplings, and some French fries. While we were waiting for our food, I asked: “Do any of you know how Julian got involved with the government of Guatemala?”


Billy opened up his backpack again.


The relationship between Julian and Guatemala began in 1949, according to Nugent’s book. That year “The Black Eagle” had a meeting with general Harry H. Vaughan—Military Aide to President Harry S. Truman. According to records and photos available at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, Vaughan visited Guatemala twice, in the late 1940s, during the height of the Revolution. His first visit, in 1948, was for the 75th anniversary of Guatemala’s military academy. A year later he returned to meet with local military authorities. Back in New York, Vaughan introduced Julian to the military attaché at the Guatemalan Embassy, colonel and pilot Óscar Morales López (1902-1997)—the Guatemalan writer Héctor Gaitán, author of La calle donde tu vives, calls him one of the pillars of Guatemalan commercial aviation. Morales, at the time, “was seeking all kinds of equipment on behalf of his government,” Julian writes in his autobiography. “What was most urgently wanted was a fairly large number of jeeps and spare tires.”


In 1949, while Juan José Arévalo was in power, the US government still trusted Guatemala’s political decisions. Or at least, it didn’t resent them. And although the weapons embargo was still standing, Washington didn’t seem to monitor if any of its independent sellers had any relationship with Guatemala. Julian, after all, had a license to sell weapons.


“The Black Eagle” found, in Europe, the tires and other parts Guatemala was in search of for its army. He packed and shipped them to Puerto San José. The package arrived in order and on time. “The Guatemalans were delighted,” Julian writes, “they paid cash on the nail, so I too was very happy.”


For the next sales, Julian got half a million dollars up front to buy what was needed by the Guatemalan government. Once he found the items, a representative of Guatemala inspected them and, if they met the requirements, he approved the order and Julian would organize the shipment.


“My dad was a self-taught person,” Mark said. Empty dishes clicked inside the Barn Joo. Soon the waiter would arrive with our drinks.


In July 1949, Julian flew to Guatemala for the first time. He walked out of the airport wearing a US$50 Panama hat, took a taxi to downtown Guatemala City and checked in at Pan-American Hotel, on 9th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue. His visit, however, coincided with the death of Colonel Francisco Javier Arana. The curfew set by the government forced the aviator to spend the afternoon in his bedroom.



he next morning Julian hired a chauffeur and, according to Nugent’s book, met with government representatives—Árbenz among them—to explain his specialty and to leave his business card. The Guatemalans showed interest.


To provide for the Guatemalan government, Julian signed distribution contracts with arms manufacturers in Switzerland, England, Italy, and Sweden. He then got together again with Morales, back in New York.


“Our list of needs has grown,” Morales said and explained to “The Black Eagle” that he had to go back to Guatemala and speak face to face with government officials to try and reach an agreement.


Two weeks later Julian flew via Eastern Airlines to New Orleans and then took an Aviateca plane to Guatemala. He checked in again at the Pan-American Hotel. The next morning another chauffeur drove him to the National Palace. The government needed armored cars, more jeeps, combat boots, and rifles. “Fulfill this order,” they told him, “and there will be others like it.” Julian had the liberty to set the price. “He was now Guatemala’s official arms procurer,” Nugent wrote.


“The Black Eagle” found the jeeps in Toledo, Ohio. Morales checked them in Washington DC and agreed to pay Julian what he had paid initially, plus 50% of its total. On September 22, 1950, the jeeps arrived in Puerto Barrios. Julian also bought 4,800 pairs of boots from the Arnoff Shoe Company in New York City for US$2 a pair and sold them for US$4.20 to the Guatemalans.


When Árbenz became president, less than a year later, in March of 1951, one of his first orders was to update and expand the country’s armament.


“Who do you think they called?” Billy asks, smiling, as the waiter set the food we ordered next to our drinks.




The Importance of Being Julian


Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1897. The first time he saw an airplane was on January 3rd, 1913, when the American pilot, Frank Boland, performed an air show over Port of Spain. That day Julian witnessed, however, when Boland lost control of his plane and crashed to the ground. The accident killed him instantly. Julian, in his autobiography, says that the scene inspired him profoundly. “From that day onwards on all my interest was in flying. I made up my mind to be one of this race of birdman myself,” he wrote.


“Picture that scene,” Billy says. “Julian, as a kid, watching the accident.”


“That’s the beginning of a film,” Mark says.


“That’s the beginning of my film,” Billy adds.


In July 1914, when World War I began, Julian, as a citizen of a British colony, enlisted in the Trinidad & Tobago Regiment of the British West Indies. He was only 17 years old. However, after five weeks of training, the army of the British West Indies deemed that Julian was medically unfit to go to war.


Two years later, aboard the SS Chaudiere, and against his father’s will, he traveled all the way to Canada to become an aviator. Based in Montreal, Julian frequented the airport and befriended many of the local pilots. In November 1920, Julian boarded his first airplane next to the aviator and war veteran Billy Bishop.


In 1921, after many failed businesses and being discriminated against for the first time in his life, Julian, wearing a suit, arrived in Harlem at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. The aviator then crossed paths with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, mob boss Stephanie Saint Clair, and Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who had a strong influence on him.



n September 3rd, 1922, Julian made his first parachute jump during a parade in Long Island headlined by Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. During the following months, Julian performed many jumps all over Harlem, stunts that made him earn his moniker: The Black Eagle of Harlem.


Later, and under the guardianship of Clarence Chamberlain, Julian finally fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot. In the 1930’s he frequently flew to Ethiopia to help the locals during the second Italo-Ethiopian war, then he joined an all African-American flying troupe called The Blackbirds, and later became a commercial pilot, selling his services to the highest bidder.


“Papa was a rolling stone,” Mark smiles.


In the 1940’s, after hearing how Hermann Görring—the Third Reich’s minister of aviation—talked about people of color, calling them apes, Julian publicly challenged the Nazi leader to an aerial duel. “It would be a pleasure to die amidst bomb and shell, just to show what dirty rats the Nazis are,” he wrote. On July 3rd, 1942, 44-year-old Hubert Julian enlisted in the US Military. In September of that same year, he was discharged because of his age. The duel never took place. However, because of his months of service, he got the American citizenship.


After the war, in 1945, Julian, using his savings and money he got from his parents’ state—who had recently passed away—funded his own airline with the intention of taking medicine and electronic equipment to South America. During one of his first flights, he met general Henry H. Vaughan. After a trip to Indonesia to talk with Surkano, the rebel leader, Julian realized that selling weapons and military equipment to developing nations was a great business opportunity. “The Black Eagle” funded Black Eagle Associates and went straight to Washington DC to talk to Vaughan and ask for references. In March 1949 he registered with the Department of State as a seller of arms and ammunition.


“He did things no black man should’ve done, and very few white men could have done,” Mark says.


Months later Julian met with Árbenz.



Schlesinger admits via email that, while he and Kinzer were writing Bitter Fruit, he was surprised to find out that Árbenz had a sympathizer in the US, especially “someone from the black community which, at the time, was regularly controlled, persecuted, and oppressed,” he says.


García Larguardia declares that he didn’t know about Julian or his relationship with Guatemala.



Return to sender (or it was all because of a Rolls)


Between 1951 and 1952, “The Black Eagle” sold Árbenz’s government 12 M3 Half-track armored cars, 250 thousand 30 mm. and 50 mm. caliber rounds of ammunition, 3 thousand boots, jeeps, and a generous load of recoilless rifles, among other things.

y then, after Decreto 900 was approved and set in motion, the US government resented Árbenz and his policies. In September 1952 an agent from the US Department of State paid a visit to Julian’s office in Harlem. The agent let him know that selling “sophisticated” weapons—such as anti-aircraft arms—to a dubious government, went against US interests. Julian kept quiet and didn’t mention that he had just reached an agreement with REMIX, a Swiss arms company, for twelve Oerlikon cannons for the Guatemalan army. The cannons had already left a port in Antwerp, Belgium, and were on their way to Puerto Barrios, via New York.

“Well, I was there (in Guatemala) and if that was Communism, then I’m a Communist —and I’m not!” Julian wrote in his autobiography.


Julian wasn’t willing to let go of what had been his most lucrative business. Since he had begun selling to Guatemala, the aviator had made over US$200 thousand. The Oerlikons, for example, had cost Julian US$1,500 each and he had sold them for US$4 thousand. In his autobiography, he describes with colorful arrogance how he, in that time, used to carry in his wallet more money than what the average American citizen made in a year. “I was looking to keep that business flowing for many years,” he wrote.


However, it was that same opulence that fractured Árbenz’s and Julian’s relationship.



“He was very good at making money,” Billy says, showing me a picture of Julian standing by a classic car. “But terrible at managing it.”


At the end of September, days after the agent from the Department of State talked to him, Julian got a cable saying that the cannons had reached Guatemala in mint condition. With the money he earned from that deal—US$48 thousand—he bought a custom-made Rolls Royce, which, according to Nugent’s book, cost him a little over US$28 thousand. Julian paid in cash. And, as one might expect, local reporters wanted to ask him about it.


The Rolls had foam-rubber cushions, pull-up steps, a mini bar, and a microphone, which allowed Julian to give instructions to the driver from the backseat. “It will be arriving shortly,” he said, “after they finish plating the doorknobs with gold.” The reporters pushed Julian for more details. The pilot gave in and told them about the contracts with the Guatemalan government that, although were completely legal, should remain a secret due to US sentiments toward the Árbenz’s regime.


“Why do you think he told the reporters about his relationship with Árbenz?” I asked Billy.


“That was his first big contract; he was bragging,” Billy answers, coldly.


“He was his own PR agent,” Mark adds, smiling.


After the interviews, Julian took a plane to Guatemala. Swollen with pride, “The Black Eagle” walked the hallways of the National Palace waiting to be hugged and congratulated. But his joy didn’t last long since he found out he had just been fired. Árbenz, who had just learned that a counterrevolution was heating up in Honduras, had wanted to keep his businesses with the aviator a secret. When the president found out about the Rolls, and how his weapons supplier had been talking openly and with great detail to reporters about the boots, the jeeps, the rifles, the armored cars, and the Oerlikons, he decided to let go of Julian and dispense of his services.



The aviator, enraged, said goodbye with these words: “One day I will fly back to Guatemala in a jet plane, at six hundred miles per hour. My friends had better paint their roofs black as identification against the bombing and revenge of the Black Eagle.”


Spring with a Broken Corner


ays later, government officials told Árbenz that although Julian had indeed delivered the 12 Oerlikons, he didn’t send a single shell.


“Hey!” Billy says with his hands held up high. “Your government asked for weapons and Julian gave them weapons.”


By then, people in Washington had read what Julian had told the press.


“He was a businessman, after all,” Mark says.


Árbenz tried to find the shells through independent sellers, but no one wanted to take a risk with him. The president of Guatemala had no choice but to call Julian back.


“Listen, honestly, what I think happened is that Julian wanted to keep the contracts flowing,” Billy says.


“What good are cannons without any shells?” Mark adds. “My father wanted to show them that he could get those cannons, that he had that kind of power and cleverness. He’d find the shells later.”


Later, Julian went back to Guatemala and, according to Nugent’s book, he talked with the Guatemalan government’s chief of artillery, Colonel José Félix Aguilar, to agree on the conditions of a new deal. Julian, under direct orders from Árbenz himself, had to remain quiet and do all he could do to get the shells. Guatemala had to pay Julian a monthly wage for his services, on top of the cost and profit of the items sold.


Both parties agreed.

However, August came along and Julian was still looking for the shells, and by then Árbenz had information that Castillo Armas’ counterrevolution had the support of the CIA.


Desperate, Colonel Morales sent Julian this cable—written in caps and with no punctuation marks:




On August 20th, Julian finally found the shells in Italy and convinced the manufacturers to keep quiet about the deal.


By the end of the month, the shells were packed in Naples. Julian flew to Italy to handle the paperwork and logistics himself—if the cargo reached the US, it would have been confiscated. “The Black Eagle” gave instructions to not send the ammunition until there was a ship going straight to Puerto Barrios and used US$40 thousand of his own money to pay for the shipment since Guatemala’s Minister of Defense had no money available at that point. But he promised that once the shells reached Guatemala, Julian would double his investment.


“That was a stupid move,” Billy says, with a stern look on his face and dismisses that it had been a sort of favor for the Guatemalan government. “He wanted to secure the deal.”


In his autobiography, Julian admits that that transaction was the one that ended up causing him a lot of problems with his government.


Once the shells left Naples, on board the Knut Bakke, a Norwegian cargo ship, Julian flew back to New York.


But by an error that Nugent doesn’t mention in his book, one that Mark and Billy even today don’t know, and that Julian, according to his autobiography, never understood, the Knut Bakke, on November 16th, 1953, docked in a port in New York City. The customs agent walked inside the ship, performed a routine check and casually asked where the 170 boxes of ammunition were going. “To Puerto Barrios, Guatemala,” the captain of the ship said.


The shipment was seized immediately and sent to a naval warehouse in New Jersey. Not only had Julian ignored the instructions given by the Department of State and the CIA, but he also didn’t have the permits needed to transport that kind of ammunition.


“It can’t be!” Julian barked when he found out about what had happened. The next day he filed for bankruptcy—he had mortgaged his house to pay for the shells and the shipment.



A stateless man y un país sin presidente


hen the invasion was imminent, Árbenz’s priority was to find the shells. Major Alfonzo Martínez, who García Laguardia identifies as the president’s secretary and member of Congress, was sent to Europe to find the items.


It took the Guatemalan government six months to get the bullets. According to Julian, it was Árbenz’s brother in law, Antonio Vilanova Castro—Toño, as García Laguardia calls him—who took care of the shipment. Martínez had made contact with a weapons’ manufacturer in Switzerland, which served as the middleman to buy the shells and other weapons from Czechoslovakia. The shells, which were still inside their original WWII boxes, were sent to Poland to be packed inside a Swedish boat, the Alfhem.


Bitter Fruit and Nugent’s book explains the trajectory of the Alfhem as follows: the Swedish ship left Poland on April 17th, 1954, on its way to Dakar, Senegal. On April 23rd, the captain altered the course of his ship to Curaçao, 31 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Then, on May 7th, he aimed for Puerto Cortés, Honduras. Finally, five days later, on May 13th, the captain veered to Guatemala. The Alfhem reached Puerto Barrios two days later.




It didn’t take long for the government of the United States to find out about the Alfhem. Days later, on May 18th, The New Yorker published a statement written by the Department of State in which they declared that the weapons, “given its quantity, origin, boarding point, and final destination, represented a serious development” for the relationship between the US and Guatemala. And, naturally, they looked for Julian, who was out of the country trying to secure other deals.


“I had nothing to do with it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But I knew all about it.”


Nugent’s book claims that there was an American citizen working at the Swiss company where Martínez got the shells. It was this American citizen who alerted the US government. Julian had also done business with this company, so he knew about the cargo on board the Alfhem.


García Laguardia remembers the story of the Alfhem and how the propaganda shared in the following weeks claimed that the weapons came from the Soviet Union. “This was a serious allegation against Árbenz’s government. And the opposition used this information to make claims that the government was communist,” he says.


On June 17th, 1954, when Julian came back to New York, customs authorities took his passport as part of the ongoing investigation about his links with the Guatemalan government. Julian, suddenly, became a stateless man.


At the same time, three thousand miles south, in Guatemala, Castillo Armas’ counterrevolution gained ground.


Schlesinger and Kinzer’s book says that, on the morning of June 18th, a pilot aboard a Douglas C-47 airplane flew over the capital and dropped thousands of pamphlets asking for the resignation of president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The leaflets announced that, if Árbenz were still in office by dawn, the C-47 would return to destroy the country’s arsenal and bomb the National Palace. The messages were signed by the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN), Armas’ political party. Additionally, Árbenz got news that Escuintla and Retalhuleu had been heavily attacked.


Well into the afternoon, two P-47 Thunderbolt planes descended over the city. They shot and dropped fragmentation bombs around the Guardia de Honor—one of Guatemala’s most important military bases.


“We spent those days full of anguish,” García Laguardia, who at the time was 22 years old and lived in Downtown Guatemala City, says. “We saw the planes flying dangerously low and dropping bombs all over the city.”


The CIA’s strategy, however, was not to destroy any buildings or harm civilians. They aimed to bomb empty lots and scare people, and to use that fear to force the president to resign.


“Of course, we didn’t know that at the time,” García Laguardia argues. “As we watched the planes we thought that the next bomb was coming for us. It was an awful fear.” After a few days of watching the airplanes grazing the city, he and his family moved fifteen miles west, to Antigua, Guatemala.


After nine days of attacks, on June 27th, 1954, president Árbenz resigned and handed over the power to Colonel Carlos Enrique Díaz, chief of the Republic’s Armed Forces. “We have been outraged by the cowardly attacks of the American mercenary pilots who, knowing that Guatemala doesn’t have an air force strong enough to fight back, have tried to scare people all over the country,” Árbenz said during his resignation.


On July 7th, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas assumed the presidency.


In early August, the Department of State talked to Julian. After a long conversation, “The Black Eagle of Harlem” promised not to do business with other “Communist” regimes. In return he got his passport back. Days later, Julian sent a cable to the new president of Guatemala, congratulating him on his victory and offering his services.


“No, thanks,” Castillo Armas replied.


“In any case, I have never been absolutely sure that the degree of Communist infiltration was as great as Washington made out,” Julian wrote in his autobiography. “It seemed to me then, and still does, that the influence of that giant American concern, the United Fruit Company, played as great a part in the crisis as the international considerations.”



Two ghosts


“Did he ever tell you about his time in Guatemala?” I ask Mark.


Mark shakes his head no. After 45 minutes of conversation, there was still one barbeque chicken wing left on the table.


“He was 73 years old when I was born. He didn’t talk about his past life. He was a dad. He was no longer The Black Eagle.”


“What about his friends? Did you ever hear him talking about that—?”


“No.” Mark’s voice was firm and severe. “I remember he used to have a lot of people over for dinner. But I can’t remember anything in specific.”


“Any pictures?”


“If there are any pictures of him in Guatemala,” Billy adds, “they’re probably in Guatemala.”


Billy says that after his documentary was released, in May of last year, he got a never-before-seen photo of Julian wearing shorts in Indonesia, and he hopes that more people watch the video to see if any other pictures come to light.


“Alejandro, eat that so I don’t,” Billy says, pointing at the last chicken wing. It was still warm.


“Do you think that for Julian this was strictly business?” I ask.


“My father didn’t care about no politics,” Mark says. “He just wanted to make money.”


In his autobiography, Julian closes the chapter about Guatemala saying that as far as he was concerned, he always worked legally, and that’s all that mattered to him. “Árbenz’s regime was the duly elected and properly constituted government of the country, which was perfectly entitled to retain me to buy arms or any other goods. The internal politics of the country were no affair of mine,“ he wrote.

fter his time in Guatemala, Julian sold weapons to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was also the democratically elected president of his country and who could be described as many things, except being a communist. His last weapons contract was with Moise Tshombe, Katanga’s leader, during the Congo crisis. Mark repeats, “He did things no black man should’ve done, and very few white men could have done.” During his time in the Congo, Julian became sick and retired. Otherwise, according to Billy, he would have played his part in the Vietnam War as well.


“And I’m sure he would’ve done it from Cambodia’s side,” he adds. “His father was not a stupid man,” he says, pointing at Mark, “and he learned from his mistakes. He was a fan of JFK, LB Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Roosevelt—”




Billy pauses as if dazzled by the question. “Probably not.”


Julian lived the rest of his life in Harlem where he continued to be a beloved figure. He made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show. Billy said that, before the interview, he discovered an amazing photograph of Julian at the New York State Public Library. The Black Eagle was approximately 65 years of age and shaking hands with a young Cassius Clay—before he legally changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

“When this photo was taken,” Billy says, holding his phone, “Julian was the more famous of the two.”


However, despite his grandiose life, few people have heard of The Black Eagle of Harlem, and even less of the part he played in the history of Guatemala, and how, if his last deal with Árbenz had gotten through, the country’s history could have been different.


His autobiography, for example, was self-published, and Nugent’s book, though it was published in hardcover and paper, has been out of print since the 1970s. Even in Harlem, where there are streets, parks, and monuments erected to its most famous residents, there is not a single mention of Julian. Mark says that at some point in the 1980s there was interest in making a film about his father’s life and that there was even a preliminary script.


“Did they have a lead actor?” I say.


Mark says no. “But I imagine Denzel. This was before the Malcolm X or the Hurricane movie.”


“Maybe we could get Chadwick now,” Billy says, and asks for the check.


“Black Panther?”


“No spoilers,” Billy says to Mark who, after the interview, was going to see Avengers: Infinity War. “When we met, Mark said that he thought nobody remembered his father anymore. However, Julian’s influence and stardom are undeniable.” There was a pause. “Do you know Sam Wilson?”


I told Billy that the name sounded familiar.


“Falcon. Marvel Comics,” he adds. “Sam Wilson was born in Harlem. His first appearance was in 1969. Black Eagle. Falcon. Black man. Aviator. I’d love to ask Stan Lee if he based Falcon on Julian. No spoilers,” he says again. “But, not even the schools in Harlem mention him.”


“Much like Árbenz,” I say. Mark and Billy seem confused. “I didn’t learn about Árbenz or the invasion in school.”


“But they do talk about him?” Mark says.


“Let me put it this way. We have a bridge named after Castillo Armas. There’s also an overpass named after Ubico—the dictator that was ousted in 1944 by the Revolution. There is an overpass named after a dictator,” I repeat.


Another pause. The waiter comes back with our check. Billy offers his credit card. “The good thing about getting tenure is that I can invite you, gentlemen,” he says.


“Did you bring the book?” Mark asks me. “Where they mention my father?” I told him no. I said to Mark that I was in New York only for a few days and that I wanted to travel light. I should have brought the book.