Engineer Promotes African-Americans In Early Days Of Aviation William J. Powell
William J. Powell was an engineering student from
Chicago would go on to become an important link in
African-American aviation history and do much to take
the accomplishments of the early pioneers in aviation
and propel them to national acclaim.
William J. Powell was born in Kentucky in 1897 and moved
with his family to Chicago where he went on to attend
the University of Illinois engineering program before
the start of the First World War. When the U.S. entered
the war in 1917, Powell interrupted his studies and
enlisted in the racially segregated 370th Illinois
Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant.
During the war Powell suffered a long-term injury after
a gas attack during a battle in France. He moved back to
Illinois to both finish his degree and recuperate from
his injuries and it was during this time that Powell
became fascinated with flight and the idea of becoming a
being rejected by all of the area flight schools, as well as the
Army Air Corps because of his race, Powell finally was accepted
to the Los Angeles School of Flight in 1928. In four years, he
not only received his pilot license, but also was certified as a
navigator and aeronautical engineer.
tribute to Bessie Coleman, the first African-American to obtain
a pilot's license in the U.S., Powell created Bessie Coleman
Aero clubs as a way to introduce flying and aviation to the
African-American public nationwide. He also created the first
Black-owned airplane building company and envisioned the firm as
a way to hire African-Americans to design, build and maintain
aircraft throughout the U.S.
America's only black U.S. representative, Oscar DePriest, made a
visit to Los Angeles, and was honored when Powell made a flyover
above the parade DePriest was attending and named the plane
after the congressman. Later Powell took the congressman on a
flight in the plane and noted to DePriest that it was the first
instance of a congressman being flown by an African-American.
Two years later, Powell would host the nation's first all-black airshow, drawing more than 15,000 attendees. It was also during this time that Powell's dream of all-Black flying clubs and airshows began to take root, with clubs cropping up in major cities like Chicago and New York, as well as other cities throughout the country. Aviator pioneers such as James Banning, Thomas Allen, C. Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe began breaking distance records, with transcontinental flights from the East to West coasts.
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