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In late 1927, William J. Powell, a trained engineer and World War I veteran who owned several successful gas stations in Chicago, arrived in Paris. Officially there to attend a convention of the American Legion, Powell had one important side trip he wanted to make. He convinced friends to go with him to the Le Bourget Airfields, on the outskirts of Paris. There, only a few months earlier, Charles Lindbergh had landed the Spirit of St. Louis after his historic transatlantic flight.
That day, Powell took his first ride in an airplane, buzzing through the Paris skies and circling the Eiffel Tower. From that first flight, Powell was infatuated with aviation — both the magic and the mechanics. Most importantly, he saw it as a way for African American men and women to soar far above a racist world. In his thinly veiled autobiographical novel, “Black Wings,” the main character expresses this revelation while still at the Le Bourget Airfields:
There is before our eyes an infant industry that someday bids fair to become a bigger giant than any. We have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, an opportunity to help develop this industry — we have an opportunity to grow with this industry, an opportunity to become producers — what shall we do?
Powell would spend the rest of his short life spreading this message with an almost evangelical fervor.
William J. Powell was born in 1899 in Henderson, Kentucky. He was still a child when his family moved to Chicago, where he grew into a highly intelligent and musical young man. His time at the University of Illinois was interrupted by America’s entry into World War I. He was commissioned as first lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Forces and served with the segregated 317th Engineers and 365th Infantry. A nerve gas attack on November 11, 1918 (ironically, the last day of the war) would seriously impact his health for the rest of his life.
Honorably discharged in 1919, Powell returned to the University of Illinois. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. Powell worked as an electrical engineer before opening his first gas station in South Chicago in 1924. The business, offering “service with a smile,” was a success, and he soon opened several more service stations.
After his ride in the Paris skies, going back to life as a small business owner seemed unfulfilling. Powell wanted to learn to fly himself and began to search for schools that would accept a black man. He was repeatedly turned away — even by the Army Air Corps. “The recruiter cut the bull,” writes Phil Scott at Aviation History, “and told him that, even though he was a veteran, the War Department wouldn't accept ‘colored men in the Air Corps,’ adding, ‘I personally don't agree with this policy ... I was reared by a colored mammy and would just as soon instruct colored students as whites .... But — such is life!’”
In 1928, Powell was finally accepted into the Warren School of Aeronautics in Los Angeles. So important was flying to Powell that he uprooted his life — sold his businesses, paid $1,000 tuition and permanently moved to Los Angeles.
In L.A., Powell found a strong black community (he continued singing — joining the Pacific Coast Harmony Makers) and a region obsessed with aviation innovation. After obtaining his pilot’s license, Powell decided to form a club that would link black pilots together and bring the gospel of aviation to African Americans across the country.
Powell had long admired Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in the world to obtain a pilot’s license. Unable to gain acceptance to an American aviation school, Coleman had gone to France for training. Before her tragic death in 1926 (her plane crashed during rehearsal for an air show), Coleman had dreamed of opening an American school for black pilots.
In 1928, Powell officially formed the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which was headquartered on Jefferson Boulevard. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” he said, “we have overcome that which was much worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”
The club — which was open to all races and sexes — soon became the hub of black flight in Los Angeles. Powell trained many new pilots, including future Tuskegee Airmen. Important members of the club, who often flew together out of Los Angeles Eastside Airfield, included Irvin Wells, James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen. (In 1932, Banning and Allen would be the first black pilots to fly from Los Angeles to New York.) Powell also offered lessons in aeronautics in black high schools and was particularly welcoming to black women interested in aviation.
On Labor Day of 1931, Powell and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club mounted a huge airshow at the Los Angeles Eastside Airfield. Up to 15,000 spectators watched as the Negro Formation Flying Group, led by Powell, flew in formation. A woman named Lottie Theodore jumped out of a plane with a parachute, and the Goodyear blimp dropped a rose wreath onto the field in honor of Bessie Coleman.
On December 6,1931, Powell sponsored a second show which he advertised as the “Colored Air Circus.” This show included a group of elite African American pilots he called the Blackbirds. One of the pilots in the group was Marie Dickerson, a popular singer and belly dancer at Culver City’s Cotton Club. She participated in The Blackbirds’ formation flying. "[Powell] would lead, the first one [airplane] would fall off, then the second one, then the third one, and we would make a line and come on back around and make another string and come off,” Dickerson recalled. “That's all we did, and that was good enough."
Even the Los Angeles Times begrudgingly reported on the exciting event in a story titled “Colored Flyers Draw Throng:”
The “Black Eagle,” known in private life as Col. Hugh Julian, who described himself as a former officer in the Abyssinian air force, and five other colored pilots kept nearly 10,000 necks craned skyward over Los Angeles Eastside Airport yesterday afternoon during the colored air circus conducted under the auspices of the Associated City Employees Fund for the Unemployed. Along with the “Black Eagle” flew the “Five Blackbirds” stunt squadron of colored speed aces. Stunt and parachute leaps completed an afternoon of thrills.
Over the next few years, Powell would participate and help stage all-black air shows across the country. This was not just to provide entertainment, but to get black Americans excited about aviation and its myriad of job opportunities as pilots, mechanics, engineers and stewardesses. “There is a better job and a better future in aviation for Negroes than in any other industry,” Powell explained, “and the reason is this: aviation is just beginning its period of growth, and if we get into it now, while it is still uncrowded, we can grow as aviation grows.”
In 1934, Powell spread his message further with his book “Black Wings,” published by Ivan Deach, Jr. of L.A. “Very soon air travel will be as common as railroad transportation is today,” he explained in the preface. “I trust my story may produce a picture that will arouse the interest of the Negro in flying — that he will wake up to his opportunities and not let ‘the other men start traveling by radio before he starts traveling by airplane.’” He continued:
I trust also that my story may show the Negro schoolboy and girl a wide-open field of industry, full of opportunities leading to fame and fortune, in which there is still a chance for the Negro to reach the highest pinnacles even in production and distribution …. I trust my story may bring the Negro business man and the Negro financier to realizing that untold wealth lies in the development of passenger and freight air service, and that they may realize that if the Negro expects to ride below the Mason and Dixon line as a free man should ride, he must ride in an airplane owned and operated by Negroes.
This belief in an aviation industry by and for black Americans was part of Powell’s larger philosophy to break the shackles of white employers. “I do not ally myself with the Negro who begs a white man for a job,” he wrote. “I ally myself with that ... young progressive Negro who believes he has the brain, the ability, to carve out his own destiny.”
Powell used every method possible to spread the news of aviation to the masses. From 1937 to 1939 he published the Craftsmen Aero News newsletter, the trade magazine of his educational organization Craftsmen of Black Wings. He wrote a play called “Ethiopia Spreads Her Wings.” He enlisted his famous friends, including boxer Joe Louis, and entertainers Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, to donate money and spread awareness. In 1935, he even produced his own film.
“His documentary film, ‘Unemployment, the Negro and Aviation,’ became one effective vehicle,” Von Hardesty, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum writes. “The docudrama tells the story of a black college graduate seeking employment. His initial enthusiasm gives way to despair as the prevailing discrimination compels him to accept a menial job … while sweeping a loading dock at a warehouse he sees, by chance, a flier describing Powell’s call for black youth to enter the field of aviation. This fortuitous event alters his life.”
Powell also worked with a group of other African American veteran officers to promote equality in the U.S. Air Corps. Sadly, he died in 1942 at Veterans Hospital in Sharon, Wyoming, from complications from the nerve gas attack he had survived in World War I. His wife, Lucylle, and his children, William Jr. and Bernadyne, were by his side. In the skies, Tuskegee Airmen, many whose dreams of aviation had been sparked by Powell, were flying into history.
Top Image: William J. Powell's Colored Air Circus l Still from Blue Sky Metropolis "Wings: Aviation Takes Flight in Early Los Angeles"