Early African American Aviators
William J. Powell (right), c. 1931. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number NASM 9A00624.
WILLIAM J. POWELL: THE VISIONARY
William J. Powell was born in Henderson, Kentucky, in 1897, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was eight years old. When Powell was 16, he graduated from Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School. He then applied to the engineering school at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
Edna Gayle, Powell's sister, in an interview with Philip Hart in 1983, recalled that the university accepted Powell without difficulty. But the dean of the engineering school told Powell that in order to succeed he would have to work harder than the white students.
Powell stayed in school for several years. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Powell enlisted in officer training school in Chillicothe, Ohio in a segregated unit. He left officer's school as a first lieutenant and was sent to fight in Europe. On the last day of his tour of duty, the black troops in Powell's unit were ordered to the front lines, and Powell was wounded in an enemy gas attack.
Powell came back to the United States to recover. When he returned to better health he opened an automobile service station in Chicago. Eventually, Powell opened four service stations and a large garage that did automobile repairs.
In 1926 Powell traveled to Paris, France for an American Legion convention. In Paris, at Le Bourget Airfield, Powell, along with his church pastor, took his first exhilarating ride in an airplane.
Powell returned to Chicago very excited about aviation. He tried to locate a flight school that would accept him, but he could not find a school that would take a black student. After much difficulty, Powell was accepted at a flight school in Los Angeles, California. The owners of the school said they did not care what race Powell was, as long as he had the necessary $1,000 for tuition.
Powell decided to sell his businesses in Chicago and move to Los Angeles. A move to a dryer climate such as California had been recommended by his doctor to aid his continuing recovery from the wartime gassing.
Los Angeles and its growing black population suited Powell. After learning to fly, Powell began to dream about organizing an all-black flight school in honor of Bessie Coleman. He recognized that aviation was a new technology with the potential to change society, and was anxious for black Americans to enter this new field on the ground floor–to become pilots, mechanics, flight school owners, and airplane designers.
In 1929 Powell helped found the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, the first all-black flight school in the world. Powell and three other businessmen hoped to form more than 100 black aero clubs in different cities across the country.
The Bessie Coleman Aero Club sponsored the first all-black air show in September 1931. This show attracted so much attention that Los Angeles city officials asked the club to put on a second exhibition as a benefit for the city's unemployment fund. The second all-black air show was held on 6 December 1931 at Eastside Airport in Los Angeles. This show featured the "Black Eagle," Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a well-known aviator from New York City, as well as big band music from Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club orchestra. In addition, the Five Blackbirds made their debut, which marked the first time five black pilots flew in aerobatic formation.
Powell and other black aviators saw the airplane not only as a method of transportation but also as a force for social change. They felt that if blacks could show they were capable pilots, segregation and discrimination against the black population would decrease. Powell expressed his ideas in a 1934 book, Black Wings, and a 1935 film, Unemployment, the Negro, and Aviation. Powell also published a newsletter called the "Craftsman Aero News," aimed at promoting aviation in the black community.
William J. Powell, with his resources, business acumen, and promotional abilities, clearly saw that aviation was to become a major industry. This visionary pioneer passed away in 1942, and lived long enough to see cross-country flights by black pilots and the enactment of the Tuskegee Institute program that would produce black combat pilots.