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Tue, 07.27.1897

William J. Powell, a pioneer in Aviation

William J. Powell, 1917

The birth of William J. Powell in 1897 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black aviator and businessman.

From Henderson, KY, he moved with his family to Chicago when he was eight. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School at age 16, he applied to the University of Illinois School of engineering. He was a top student and musically talented to boot. He interrupted his studies at the University of Illinois to serve in World War I as an infantry lieutenant.

After being badly wounded in a gas attack, he went back to Illinois to finish his electrical engineering degree. All the while, he lived with the terrible informal segregation of the North and the strict Jim Crow Laws of the South. In 1934, Powell wrote a thinly fictionalized autobiography, "Black Wings." It tells how he visited Le Bourget Airfield soon after Lindbergh had landed there, took his first airplane ride, and was deeply moved by it. Readers learned how he was rejected by a flying school and by the Army Air Corps, and finally accepted into a Los Angeles flying school in 1928.

By 1932 he was licensed, not just as a pilot, but as a navigator and as an aeronautical engineer as well.  In "Black Wings," he wrote, "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 meant to fly around Jim Crow. The new technology of flight truly seemed to be a way to slip "the surly bonds of earth." By taking hold of the embryonic flight industry, Black Americans could build their own economic independence. He founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, named for the first black woman to fly.

In 1931 Powell organized an all-Negro air show for the Club in Los Angeles. He drew 15,000 visitors. Powell built his own flying school and shop. Everything he did had a clean solidarity to it. He wasn't an aerial showman or a dramatic public figure. His book was filled with down-to-earth technical detail. Powell gave that cause its substance, its his belief system, and a well-honed, bourgeois work ethic.

He died in 1942, perhaps from the after-effects of World War I poison gas. But Powell did live to see his work bear fruit through the Tuskegee Airman Unit of Black fighter pilots. What he didn't live to see was a world where Black airline pilots, and then Black astronauts, were no longer unusual.

John Lienhard,
University of Houston,
W.J. Powell, Black Aviator,
(with an introduction by Von Hardesty),
Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

V. Hardesty, and D. Pisano,
Black Wings, Washington, D.C.,
National Air and Space Museum,
Smithsonian Institution, 1984,
(see especially p. 7.)

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