Last week, a crowd recited the Kaddish in memory of an unlikely aviation pioneer—a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Arthur L. Welsh. The occasion was the centennial of his tragic death at the College Park Airfield. Among those gathered were great grand-nieces and nephews of the little-known pioneering aviator. On June 11, 1912, Welsh was killed while testing a Wright-designed plane for military use.
The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the Wright brothers’ inner circle seems improbable. Yet Welsh distinguished himself as one of the earliest and most respected pilots in our country. Unlike the Wright brothers, whose ancestors arrived in Massachusetts just 20 years after the Pilgrims, Al Welsh’s story began as one typical of a working class Jewish immigrant.
America’s first Jewish airman was born Laibel Willcher in Russia, where he lived until he came to this country with his parents as a boy. The family settled in Philadelphia. Shortly after Laibel's father died, his mother remarried.
In 1898, the family moved to Washington’s 4 ½ Street, Southwest, neighborhood—home to a small enclave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century. This was the same neighborhood where another young Jewish immigrant was growing up—Asa Yoelson, a cantor's son who later changed his name to Al Jolson.
Like so many other Jewish families, Laibel and his family lived above the grocery store that his mother ran. His stepfather worked as a cutter in a tailor shop.
When Laibel joined the Navy in 1901, he gave his name as Arthur L. Welsh—perhaps to escape anti-Semitism. After his honorable discharge, Welsh returned to Washington and worked as a bookkeeper. He attended meetings of the Young Zionist Union, where he met his future bride, Anna Harmel. Their 1907 wedding was the first held at the then-Orthodox Adas Israel’s second synagogue at 6th and I Streets.
When the Wright brothers came to Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909, Al Welsh was among the throng who watched in fascination as the famous brothers tested their military flier.
Welsh chased and realized his dream of flying with the Wright brothers. Though he did not have the mechanical knowledge required, he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to gain the attention of the Wrights. After initial rejection, Welsh traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to appeal to the Wrights in person.
His persistence eventually overcame his lack of qualifications. Welsh trained directly under Orville Wright and became a trusted and skilled pilot—a notable achievement given the difficulties of flying a Wright plane. This young Jewish immigrant also gave lessons to the first military pilots, including the famed Henry "Hap" Arnold, later a five-star general and U.S. Army Air Chief of Staff during World War II.
The funeral service, held at the Harmel family home, was delayed so Orville Wright and his sister Katherine would have time to arrive from Dayton. Orville served as a pallbearer, along with Hap Arnold and several of Welsh’s Jewish friends from the neighborhood. His coffin was draped in a silken tallis. The Yiddish newspaper The Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the wife and mother of the deceased.”
Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Welsh's wife Anna died in 1925 “of a broken heart,” as the family remembered. Their daughter, just two years old at the time of her father’s death, grew up in Southwest and later moved to London.
In the early 1930s, Welsh’s sister, Clara Wiseman, campaigned to gain public recognition for her brother. She urged the military to name an airfield in his honor, as they had done for Welsh’s copilot. But since Welsh had flown as a civilian, no such honor was forthcoming.
Today, perhaps her efforts have been vindicated. Last week the College Park Aviation Museum unveiled a new interpretive sign telling Welsh's story at the edge of the airfield where this young Jewish immigrant turned pioneer pilot lost his life a century ago.
Object No.: C1-21 Description: Photograph of Arthur Welsh, at the controls of a Wright brothers airplane, and smoking cigar, 1909-1912.
Background: Born in Russia in 1881, Laibel Wellcher immigrated with his family to Philadelphia and moved to Washington as a teen. His family lived above the grocery store his mother ran at 900 G Street, SW. When he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1901, Wellcher changed his name to Arthur Welsh. His marriage to Anna Harmel in 1907 was the first wedding in Adas Israel’s new synagogue at 6th and I Streets, NW.
After watching Orville Wright’s flight demonstrations at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909, Welsh joined the Wright brothers’ first training class. A skilled pilot, Welsh trained many of America’s first aviators. One of his students was Hap Arnold (seen here at far left, with Welsh), who went on to become the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces during World War II. Arnold later remembered, “Welsh taught me all he knew. Or rather, he taught me all he could teach. He knew much more.”
In 1912, Welsh was tragically killed in a crash at the College Park Airfield during a test flight of a new military plane designed by the Wright brothers. He was buried in the Adas Israel cemetery in southeast Washington. The Yiddish newspaper Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the mother and wife of the deceased.”
Commemorate Welsh’s centennial and legacy with a special medal commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society. This limited edition, 2 ¼” medal is available in several finishes including Bronze ($50), Silver-plated ($75), and Gold-plated ($100).
To learn more about Arthur Welsh, join us on Tuesday, June 12th at 7:00 p.m. at the College Park Aviation Museum when we’ll celebrate his centennial with a special program, exhibition, and dedication of commemorative plaque. A reception follows the program.
Transportation: Free parking at the Aviation Museum or reserve seats on a private motorcoach from Adas Israel Congregation for $20 per person. Bus departs at 6:00 p.m., returns at 9:30 p.m. Advance registration and payment required online or (202) 789-0900.
This coming June will mark the centennial of Arthur Welsh's death in an airplane crash.
The story of Welsh, a Russian Jewish immigrant who settled in Washington, is one of our favorites. Likely after seeing an airplane demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908, he asked the Wright Brothers to hire him. After he persisted, they eventually agreed. He became one of their most trusted pilots and instructors, training several pilots (including "Hap" Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II) and demonstrating the new technology of flight until his untimely death when his Wright Flyer C crashed at College Park airfield on June 11, 1912.
To commemorate the centennial of his death, we are collaborating with the College Park Aviation Museum to create a small exhibition and hold a special program. As part of the prep, we recently met with Paul Glenshaw, the exhibition's researcher and designer, and Tiffany Davis, Collection Curator at the Museum. We ventured together to pay our respects to Welsh at Southeast Washington's Adas Israel Cemetery.
Interested in learning more about this remarkable Jewish Washingtonian? Visit the online exhibition we created several years ago, and come join us at the program in June!
Background: This banner, an example of holiday decorations manufactured after World War II, adorned the Georgetown home of Ukrainian immigrants Louis and Rebecca Weinstein, to celebrate Hanukkah. This trend toward observing Hanukkah with songs, gifts, and decorations developed as the 20th century progressed.
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From the Archives...
Jewish New Years card, ca. 1910
Archives Record Object #: 1997.06.1 Donor: Edith and Charles Pascal Description: Rosh Hashanah pop-up card featuring welcomed immigrants, 6” x 3.5” (1.75” deep when pop-up is unfolded), 1909
Background: The central image on this Rosh Hashanah pop-up card is known as "Finding Refuge in America.” Attributed to Joseph Keller, the original chromolithograph is in the collections of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Library.
Click here to learn more about the image and the history of these sorts of cards.
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