It’s heartbreaking when a teenage boy finds his girlfriend kissing one of his buddies. When that happened to Frank Mann many years ago, he became suicidal, jumped in his car, and drove away in a reckless frenzy.
He found himself at the old South Main Airport in Houston where he bought a $1 ticket for an airplane ride, intending to jump out of the biplane once it was airborne. But the thrill of that plane ride was a turning point for Mann.
"Forget about girls. This is for me," thought Mann, who developed a love affair for airplanes and flying that helped him play a crucial role in the development of the flight and automotive industries in the early and mid-20th century.
But Mann’s role in aerospace and automobile engineering is not widely known. That’s why Harry Bryer of Oak Harbor, Ohio, has written the book Hidden Genius — Frank Mann, the Black Engineer Behind Howard Hughes. It’s easy to read at just more than 100 pages, and was released this spring by the author under his own publishing company, Grey Forest Press of Oak Harbor.
To be sure, Mann’s contributions to industry have been sparsely chronicled. And as much as his is an amazing story, also marvelous is the shattering of racial barriers between the black genius and the white Bryer brothers who befriended Mann in their home state of Texas.
Telling the story
The Bryer brothers, most notably Mike and Paul — the latter with whom Mann became so inseparable that the engineer put his affairs into his hands — have determined that not another century closes before the world knows that it benefits from Mann’s role in engineering.
Harry Bryer befriended Mann through his brothers. When Harry visited relatives in Texas in the 1980s, he joined his brother for a night out with Mann or for a visit at the engineer’s shop.
Paul was closest to Mann, but Harry felt compelled to write his story. That explains Harry’s description of Paul as the people-person with a photographic memory and himself as a bookworm and studious.
And though the book is short, Harry Bryer, a self-employed construction contractor, said writing it was not easy because he had never written one before. But he remained on task, writing for several hours a day when the construction business was down in the cold months.
"I didn’t spend days with Frank, but I spent months researching him and talking to my brother about him and picking my brother’s brain," he said.
Described as the brains behind Hughes, Mann — an aeronautical and aerospace engineer who lived from 1908 to 1992 — received recognition for his role in developing key engineering for automobiles, trains, airplanes, and the space industry. But as with other aspects of black history, confirming some details was difficult. That meant Harry Bryer had to rely on Mann and his records for what they didn’t know.
After falling in love with airplanes at that airport, Mann often went there to watch mechanics, who let him do work. The airport is where Mann met Hughes; it was near Hughes’ father’s tool company and where the Hughes’ family hangared its airplanes.
"Frank and Howard spent many hours together working on various projects," Harry Bryer writes. "Because the white engineers refused to work with a black man, Howard often would dismiss them and bring Frank in."
Mann was a primary civilian trainer for the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black air squadron and because of their friendship, Hughes used his influence with the government to obtain better equipment for the black pilots.
Planes and cars
Mann’s career touched almost every aspect of aviation. The author quotes Mann, also a World War II officer, as stating, "I mostly worked on design plans for aircraft, and I redesigned components to make certain that the aircraft would work properly." He claimed to be the first black pilot to fly passenger planes for a major American airline, saying he was hired as a pilot by Northwest Airways, which later became Northwest Airlines.
His role in the auto industry was distinguished as well. The Bryer brothers — whose family lived for a few years in Toledo from the late 1960s to early 1970s — have a mass of material about Mann. It includes a 1955 issue of Car Life magazine shows a photo of Mann’s "Baby Le Sabre." He built the car as a hobby on the lines of the F-86 Sabre Jet. In the 1950s, Mann also built a miniature railroad and train set that then was worth half a million dollars.
Rather than demand recognition for his designs, Mann was awed by the attention from visitors. It didn’t even upset him when they drew pictures of his designs.
"I didn’t know what was going on," he told Paul Bryer, who still lives in Texas. "... they gave me royalties for about 10 years on the LeSabre and Eldorado and all these other cars. What was I going to do?"
Paul Bryer was stunned that Mann didn’t get more. That’s when Mann gave his white friend this insight: Had the head of General Motors in the 1950s "paraded me around to the white public and said, ‘This black man had designed this aerodynamic car,’ " how many white people do you think would’ve bought their cars?"
The Bryers say Mann had a role in naming the Eldorado, influencing the design of the Corvette, making the device that holds the space shuttle to planes, and in Hughes’ "twin-engine Lockheed Model 14 Lodestar for its record-breaking seven-day flight around the world." The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has honored Mann at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for his work on the shuttle device.
Build it yourself
Once during a trip to California, Mann was fascinated with the cars of movie stars. Most people would buy one. Mann built one.
" ‘So I bought me some tools, I rented a garage, and I began to haul other parts and pieces there. The first car that I built there I called ‘The Eldorado.’ I had been a band promoter and MC at the Eldorado Club in Houston. It was the elite Black nightclub in Houston, so I named my custom car after it,’ " Harry Bryer writes.
In 1949, Bill Justice, an animator for Disney studios, asked Mann to design a sports car based on his drawing. Mann used fiberglass to make the car, which looked much like a prototype for the Corvette. The first generation Corvette came out in 1953.
Work, however, wasn’t always on Mann’s mind. A handsome man who favored Billy Dee Williams during the era of Lady Sings the Blues, he enjoyed a vibrant social life. The impeccably dressed Mann was quite a dancer who also spent time with such figures as baseball legend Satchel Paige, and actors Groucho Marx and Errol Flynn.
Paul Bryer so endeared Frank that he cared for him until he died. A demonstration of that care moved others. A black surgeon who operated on Mann watched closely as Paul Bryer shampooed, dried, and combed Mann’s hair, and shaved his face during his last hospital stay.
The surgeon admitted to Paul Bryer that he was suspicious about his motives. But after watching him care for Mann, the doctor said, "I don’t think that there are many sons who would do for a father what you did for him. I can see now that you truly love him."
The display of that fondness continues in the Bryers’ endeavor to tell Mann’s story.
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