Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumPioneers of Flight

Black Wings

The invention of the airplane sparked a revolution in modern technology. In the popular mind, the new air age became associated with adventure and heroism. African Americans shared the widespread enthusiasm for flying, but they found themselves routinely denied access to training as pilots and mechanics.

Beginning in the 1920s, a small number of determined black air enthusiasts challenged racial discrimination. With great effort—and against formidable odds—they realized their dream to fly.

Bessie Coleman

Coleman broke through the headwinds of racial prejudice as a barnstorming pilot at air shows in the 1920s.

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman became one of the first African Americans to earn a pilot's license and to seek a career in aviation.

As a pilot, Bessie Coleman quickly established a benchmark for her race and gender in the 1920s. She toured the country as a barnstormer, performing aerobatics at air shows.

Her flying career, however, proved to be short-lived. She died in a plane crash in 1926, her untimely death coming just a year before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.

For the African American community, Bessie Coleman became an enduring symbol of how a talented and highly motivated person could seek out a career in aviation.

WIlliam J. Powell, Jr.

Powell dreamed of African Americans finding their rightful place in the air age as pilots and mechanics, a vision he called "Black Wings."

William J. Powell
William J. Powell led a small group of black air enthusiasts in Los Angeles during the 1920s. He established the Bessie Coleman Flying Club and sponsored the first all-black air show.

He called for the full participation of African Americans in aviation as pilots, mechanics, and business leaders. To achieve this end, he wrote his visionary book, Black Wings, produced a documentary film, and worked tirelessly to mobilize African American youth for aviation.

 

Black Wings Epilogue

Black Wings Epilogue
Explore the accomplishments of post WWII pioneers.
Requires Flash player.

Tuskegee Airmen Flight Leader

Tuskegee Airmen
Fly a bomber escort mission as flight leader of the 332nd Fighter Group
Requires Flash player.

For more of the Black Wings story, see the Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators website.

National Air and Space Museum Home | Terms of Use | Privacy | Contact | Smithsonian Institution