Mary Groce didn't know she had a great-uncle who could be worthy of history books until she opened an old cardboard box.

The 63-year-old was rifling through family memorabilia with a relative when she came across the photo of a handsome, crisply dressed man gripping the steering wheel in a cockpit.

"That's Uncle Emory?" she said, stunned, to her cousin Aileen Ryan. "He's black."

Groce looks anything but.

As she dug deeper, Groce found the outline of a life that had been hidden from her family for a generation.

In 1912, Emory Malick soared in a plane over central Pennsylvania. His accomplishments, some say, laid the foundation for generations of black pilots, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black U.S. military pilots in World War II.

They also stirred a decadelong quest by Groce, of Mount Laurel, to bring recognition for her great-uncle, a man who died anonymous on the streets of Philadelphia. And it prompted Groce to reevaluate her own racial identity.

The first licensed black pilot was long considered to be James Herman Banning.

"But the U.S. government didn't start licensing until 1926," said Philip S. Hart, Banning's great-nephew and a producer of a PBS documentary on blacks in aviation.

Malick earned his license in San Diego in 1912, Hart said.

The issue of Malick's race isn't easy to categorize. He appears black in the photo, but he is identified as white in census and military records. In Lancaster-area records, he is listed as "M" for mulatto. In a family photo, he appears to be multiethnic.

Malick's achievements have been part of a display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and he has been featured in Air & Space magazine, a Smithsonian publication. Hart, a retired college professor and the author of several young-readers books on early black aviators, plans to include Malick in a new digital project.

Since she opened that box in 2004, Groce, who formerly lived in Narberth, has scoured archives, newspaper files, and historical society records to fill in the picture of her great-uncle's life. She enlisted the aid of a genealogist. She joined the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen and set up a website.

"This guy was amazing," said Groce, who described her efforts to gain recognition for Malick as a quest for "redemption" of sorts, her way of making things right for her great-uncle, who died alone at 76.

Groce also felt compelled by a strong connection to Malick's life story.

"I am gay, and he was black," Groce said. "He was isolated [because of his race], and I was disowned for being gay."

She has no doubt about his ethnic background, partly because it explains mysterious comments often made by relatives about the family heritage, she said. Until she saw that photo, she never questioned her race.

Groce takes every opportunity to tell Malick's story. She is writing a children's book and a biography about him.

Born in 1881, Malick grew up Northumberland County, in a family whose roots are German, Native American, and black, according to genealogist Connie Cole.

When Malick's mother died of typhoid fever in 1887, Malick's infant sister, Annie (Groce's grandmother), was adopted by a white family. Records are unclear about Malick's whereabouts after his mother's death until he is listed as a servant in a local household at 19.

How he became interested in aviation is a mystery.

What is known is that he earned an international license recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) in 1912, when he was a student at San Diego's Curtiss School of Aviation.

"A lot of black guys did their flying in San Diego," said Eugene Richardson, 88, of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen. "The racism might not be as strong as in other parts of the country."

After earning his license, Malick moved to Philadelphia. In 1914, he flew over Selinsgrove, 36 miles north of Harrisburg, "to the wonderment of all," according to newspaper reports.

He went on to work as an aerial photographer, and he transported passengers as part of the Flying Dutchman Air Service in Philadelphia.

Malick's piloting career ended in 1928.

He crashed twice that year, during an air show in Camden and in Westville, Gloucester County. In the second crash, Malick's passenger died, and the pilot's eyes were severely injured. Malick was grounded permanently.

Malick, who never married and had no children, died in December 1958. He was found unconscious on a Philadelphia street and later died. The cause of death is unclear, but his body remained unidentified for a month, until authorities traced a Christmas card sent to him by his sister.

Malick is buried near Sunbury, Pa.

Groce is determined that her great-uncle's accomplishments won't be buried with him.

"My great-uncle was a pioneer," Groce said, "and I've taken on that mission to tell his story."