Engineer Promotes African-Americans In Early Days Of Aviation William J. Powell


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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 pilot. 

After 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.  

As a 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. 

In 1929, 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.


While Powell's initial aircraft company went bankrupt along with countless others during the Great Depression, in 1934 he created "Black Wings," another aircraft production company. But that company also became a casualty of the depression in a few short years. In the same year, Powell wrote a semi-autobiographical book, also entitled "Black Wings," dedicated to early aviation within the Black community, and contained many of his aviation exploits and chronicled the rough road he endured to become a pilot.

In his book Powell wrote of those struggles and dreams: "I do not ally myself with the Negro who begs a white man for his job. I ally myself with that...young, progressive Negro who believes he has the brain, the ability, to carve out his own destiny." 

Powell lived many of his dreams, creating his own flying school and shop and was famed for his stoic and strong work ethic. He was never an aerial showman and never became a "larger-than-life" public figure. 

He died young, at the age of 45, most likely from the effects of the gas exposure during World War I. But he lived long enough to see the formation of the Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen Black fighter pilots. Those efforts would later lead to other forays into American history such as Blacks as airline pilots and eventually as astronauts in space.

Black Women Pilots 



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