The Hunter Brothers inducted into The Randolph Society

The Hunter Brothers

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Hunter Brothers, record-breaking pioneers in the field of aviation, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

Albert, John, Kenneth, and Walter Hunter were born in southern Illinois and raised in rural Sparta. After the early death of their father, they worked to support their family as coal miners. Soon one of their hobbies – motorcycle riding – led them to the career that would make them famous: aviation.

After purchasing a plane in St. Louis in 1923, the brothers all learned to fly. With several fellow aviators, they formed the “Hunter Flying Circus,” performing death-defying stunts in airshows across the Midwest. They also began contracting with companies as airmail pilots, flying routes that would eventually become the passenger airline routes we use today.

In 1929, John and Kenneth Hunter made their first attempt to break the world record for endurance flight. After eleven consecutive days in the air, they were forced to land in heavy fog. The following summer, all four brothers teamed up to attempt to break the record again. With John and Kenneth flying the “City of Chicago,” and Albert and Walter piloting the supply plane, the Hunter Brothers managed to stay aloft for a record-breaking 553 hours, 41 minutes, and 30 seconds – approximately 23 consecutive days in the air. Their incredible feat brought them global attention and fame, including a movie contract with United Artists.

The brothers made a permanent mark on Randolph County when they inaugurated Hunter Field, an airport just north of Sparta, in May 1931. The airfield is still Randolph County’s only public airport.

Three of the brothers, John, Kenneth, and Walter, pursued professional careers in the field of aviation after their world-record flight. The fourth, Albert, left professional flying behind for farm and construction work. John died while working on an airmail route in Louisiana in 1932; Kenneth perished in a crash in Oklahoma City in 1974. In 1966, Walter retired as the senior jet captain for American Airlines.

In 1980, Sparta celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Hunter Brothers’ amazing endurance flight with a celebration at Hunter Field. The day, which was attended by Walter Hunter, included a recognition of the Hunter family and an airshow. A news report from the day summed up the brothers’ achievements: “They were the astronauts of their day.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of the Hunter Brothers.

John Willis Menard inducted into The Randolph Society

John Willis Menard at the time of his election to the United States Congress
John Willis Menard at the time of his election to the United States Congress

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce its first honoree: John Willis Menard, a speaker, writer, and public servant who broke new ground for African-American representatives in American government.

John Willis Menard was born in 1838 in Kaskaskia to Creole parents. He may have been related to the Menard family of Kaskaskia, including Pierre Menard, a prominent Kaskaskia resident who served as the first lieutenant-governor of Illinois. John Willis Menard was educated in an abolitionist school in Sparta and later studied at Iberia College in Ohio.

Menard spent much of his career writing and speaking about abolitionist causes. His first prominent speech took place in Springfield in 1859. He wrote for, edited, and established numerous newspapers in Louisiana, Florida, and Washington, D.C. He was also a poet, composing verses in honor of various historical milestones and publishing a book of poems, Lays in Summer Lands, in 1879.

Menard was appointed to a clerkship in the Department of the Interior in 1863, making him the first African-American to serve in an administrative role in the federal government. He was deeply involved in the Lincoln administration’s exploration of possible colonial settlements for freed slaves, and he embarked on an investigative mission to Belize on the government’s behalf in the summer of 1863. He met his wife, Elizabeth, while traveling through Haiti and Jamaica. The Menards had three children: Alice, Willis, and Marie Jeanette.

In 1868, Menard became the first African-American to be elected to the United States Congress after winning a special election in Louisiana’s second congressional district. When the election was contested, he traveled to Washington, where he broke yet another color barrier, becoming the first African-American person to address the chamber of the House of Representatives. Even so, he was denied his seat, largely because of his race.

Menard held numerous other elected and appointed positions in state and federal government. He was the Superintendent of Schools in Duval County, Florida; a member of Florida’s state legislature; and a clerk at the census bureau in Washington, D.C.

Menard died in Washington in 1893 at the age of 55. Today, he is recognized not only for his landmark achievements as a pioneering elected official but also for his literary work.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of John Willis Menard.