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William J. Powell - Black Aviation Pioneer

William J. Powell, Jefferson High School, Aviation, Los Angeles

William Powell teaching aeronautics class at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, 1930s. From Miraim Matthews Collection at UCLA Library.

In 1929, engineer, soldier, businessman, and aviator William “Bill” J. Powell, along with a number of other visionaries, established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles – the first ever association of African American aviators. The club also opened the world’s first all-black flight school at Los Angeles Eastside Airport, once located in what is now the City of Commerce.

Powell was born in 1897 in Kentucky and was a gifted individual who graduated early from high school and went on to attend the University of Illinois at Champaign to study engineering. In 1917, before completing his studies and with World War I raging in Europe, he signed up for Army officer training. He went on to be commission as a lieutenant in the Army and sent overseas to fight in Europe with the 365th Infantry Regiment ( the only U.S. Army regiment in World War I that was commanded entirely by African American officers). On the last day of the war, he and his unit were exposed to a poison gas attack. Powell survived, however ended up suffering the debilitating aftereffects for the remainder of his life.

William J. Powell, U.S. Army, World War 1

Young Army Lieutenant William J. Powell, ca. 1917. From National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1919 and returning home to Illinois, Powell went back to complete his degree in engineering at the university. He graduated in 1922. He then married and, after working for a railroad for a few years, opened a gasoline station in Chicago. By 1926, he owned a chain of gasoline/automotive service stations. This provided him with means and he could travel to an American Legion convention in Paris in 1927. That year was consequential for him because, not only did Charles Lindbergh ignite excitement for aviation by being the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic and landed at an airfield in Paris, but Powell received his first airplane ride from that very same field. This inspired him to envision the new age of aviation as an opportunity for African Americans. The new industries of automobiles, radio, and motion pictures had already taken off. The new frontier of aviation was just beginning.

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? – “Black Wings” by Lt. William J. Powell, 1934

Upon returning home to Chicago with his new enthusiasm for aviation and determined to earn a pilot’s license, Powell soon learned that flight schools were not welcoming to black students. He was turned down by one school after another and, although downcast, he resolved to travel back to France, if necessary, to learn how to fly. He decided to apply to one last U.S. school - the Warren School of Aeronautics in Los Angeles, California. Three weeks later, to his surprise, Powell received a positive response. School owner, C.A. Warren, wrote that they had Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican American students, so, he saw no reason that he should not enroll a black student. The course would cost $1,000 (about $16,000 in 2022 dollars), not including room and board, and take about a year to complete. Los Angeles also offered a vibrant black community and a climate that was easier on the Powell’s lingering health problems from the war. This sealed the deal for him. In 1928, he sold his businesses, packed up his family, and moved to Los Angeles.

William J. Powell, Bessie Colemand Aero Clubs, Los Angeles

Powell (right) with another pilot and Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs' first aircraft, possibly at Los Angeles Eastside Airport. From National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1929, even before fully completing his pilot training, Powell led the establishment of the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs in Los Angeles (he hoped for it to be the first of many across the country). The organization was named for the late Bessie Coleman, an inspirational business woman, barnstormer, and parachute jumper and first African-American woman and Native American to be licensed as a pilot. She was considered the black Amelia Earhart, but sadly was killed in an air crash in 1926. The club also opened a flight school and its chief instructor was James H. Banning, the first African American issued a pilot’s license (and later, in 1932, with Thomas C. Allen, first African Americans to make a transcontinental flight). The club office was located at 1423 West Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles, less than half a mile west of the University of Southern California campus. The flight school was located at Los Angeles Eastside Airport, now long gone, but once located in present-day City of Commerce on Bandini Boulevard, just south of Interstate 5 and east of Garfield Avenue (now location of a large trucking warehouse).

The nation now had a place, run by African Americans, where black men and women were fully welcome to train to fly and be aviation mechanics. Nevertheless, Powell’s vision had only begun. He was impressed by air shows and envisioned a show that promoted the capabilities and promise of black aviation.

Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, Los Angeles, 1930s

Pilots with the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs pose with aircraft, possibly at Los Angeles Eastside Airport. Powell stands at far right. From National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

On a historic Labor Day in 1931, at Los Angeles Eastside Airport, Powell and Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs presented the nation’s first “All-Negro Air Show.” There, 15,000 spectators watched the performance of the first flying formation of black aviators – the Negro Formation Flying Group - led by Powell himself. Also exhibiting in the show were Banning and aviators William J. Campanas, Maxwell Love, and Lottie Theodore. Love and Theodore demonstrated parachute jumps. The highlight of the event came when the Goodyear Blimp Volunteer appeared, dropping a wreath of roses onto the field in honor of Bessie Coleman. The event succeeded at promoting black aviation. The white-owned press, however, ignored the show, leaving coverage only to black-owned newspapers.

News of the air show spread quickly and many across the country wanted to see for themselves black aviators in the sky. The show was also a financial success and provided funding for an even larger air show that would be held several months later.

Powell and the club booked a second air show, also at Los Angeles Eastside Airport, for December 6, 1931. It would be called “The Colored Air Circus.” With the Great Depression then rapidly adding to the ranks of the unemployed, it was decided that the show benefit the Associated City Employees Fund for the Unemployed of Los Angeles. This was a first for a black organization in Los Angeles, committing proceeds for L.A.’s unemployed in general. It brought wider attention to the event.

Colored Air Circus, Los Angeles, 1931

Ad in newspaper California Eagle promoting "Colored Air Circus," held near Los Angeles in 1931. From @LAhistory.

On December 5, 1931, one day before the opening of the air show, in a ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall, Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter, Los Angeles County Supervisor John R. Quinn, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz welcomed visiting African American aviators for the airshow. The event marked the first time in history that the Mayor of Los Angeles formally welcomed black people on the steps of City Hall.

On December 6, 1931, a reported 40,000 spectators attended the air show. The performance by the main featured flyer, “Colonel” Rupert Julian of New York or the “Black Eagle” (whose titles and reputation were said to be greatly exaggerated), failed to impress as anticipated, however, the crowd was wowed by what followed. The largest formation of black aviators in the air at one time, until that time, thrilled the throng with coordinated and individual aerial performances. Powell named the flying team “The Five Blackbirds.” It ended up actually including seven fliers – Powell, Campanas and Love from the first air show, “Colonel” Julian, and aviators Irwin Wells, William Aitkens, and William B. Johnson. Julian performed a parachute jump, but, as with his flying, jumps by others - Love and aviator Marie Daugherty – outshined him. As with the first air show, the white-owned press ignored the event, but, the it glowed in the black-owned press.

Powell continued to promote aviation careers and entrepreneurship among African Americans. He offered scholarships and published an aviation journal for African Americans (Craftsman Aero News). He produced a documentary film about black aviation. He launched the first African American-owned aircraft manufacturing company, Bessie Coleman Aero, envisioned by Powell as designing and manufacturing aircraft to be flown and serviced by African Americans (unfortunately, as with many businesses, it did not survive the Great Depression). He received support and investments from famous African Americans of the time, such as musician Duke Ellington and boxer Joe Louis. In 1934, he published the book “Black Wings,” telling his story and that of fellow black aviators.

William J. Powell, Joe Louis, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs

Famed boxer Joe Louis (second from left) is given a tour by Powell (right, foreground) of work by Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs. From National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

William J. Powell, Black Wings

Copy of Powell's book "Black Wings," published 1934. From National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Powell died in 1942, only having reached age 45. His death was due to complications from his long struggle with the effects of the exposure to poison gas in World War I. He is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery in West Los Angeles. Powell did live just long enough to hear of the establishment of the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron – the famous Tuskegee Airmen - and first African American combat aviation unit in the U.S. military.

Tuskegee Airmen, 99th Pursuit Squadron, World War II

Powell helped to "clear the runway" for these Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, c. 1942-1943. P-40 fighter in background. Location is either North Africa or Southern Italy. U.S. Air Force photo.

William J. Powell is featured among aviators and aircraft designers in “Legends of Flight,” a homage to California aviation history, displayed along the walls of the entrance hall to the Soarin’ Around the World attraction at Disney California Adventure.

-- Black Wings by Lt. William J. Powell
-- Black Wings: The Life of African American Aviation Pioneer William Powell, National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian
-- William J. Powell Jr., Pioneers of Flight Gallery, National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian
-- William J. Powell, Black Past, by Elizabeth Winter
-- Dare to Dream: William J. Powell, Booster of Black Flight, KCET, by Hadley Meares
-- Early Black Pilot Found Racial Equality in the Sky, Los Angeles Times, by Cecilia Rasmussen
-- William J. Powell, Wikipedia
-- William Jenifer Powell, FindaGrave.com, by Shiver

Also see: Katherine Cheung - America's First Asian American Women Aviator.