William J. Powell, who served in a segregated
unit during World War I, wears his Army uniform. Powell tirelessly
promoted the cause of black aviation through his book Black Wings,
his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Flying School, which he founded.
||Biographical Passage about William J. Powell
There is a better job and a better future in aviation for Negroes
than in any other industry, and the reason is this: aviation is just
beginning its period of growth, and if we get into it now, while it
is still uncrowded, we can grow as aviation grows.
J. Powell, Black Wings
Born in 1897, William J. Powell earned an engineering
degree from the University of Illinois. In 1917 he enlisted in officer
training school and served in a segregated unit during World War I.
During the war Powell was gassed by the enemy, and he suffered health
problems throughout his life from this poison gas attack.
After the war Powell opened service stations in
Chicago. He became interested in aviation, but the only school that
would train him was located in Los Angeles. Thus, he sold his businesses
in Chicago and moved to the West Coast. After learning to fly, Powell
dreamed of opening an all-black flight school.
By the 1930s Los Angeles had become an important
center for black aviation. Powell organized the Bessie Coleman Aero
Club to promote aviation awareness in the black community. On Labor
Day 1931, the flying club sponsored the first all-black air show held
in the United States, an event that attracted an estimated 15,000
spectators. Through the efforts of the Bessie Coleman School, the
number of black aviators increased dramatically despite the economic
hardships of the Great Depression.
William J. Powell used many methods to attract
African Americans to the field of aviation. He made a film about a
young man who wanted to be a flyer, and for two years he published
the Craftsmen Aero-News, a monthly journal
about black aviation. He offered scholarships with free technical
training in aeronautics for black youth. He invited celebrities, such
as jazz musician Duke Ellington and boxer Joe Louis, to lend their
namesand their fundsto his cause.
Powell published Black Wings
in 1934. Dedicated to Bessie Coleman, the book entreated black men
and women to fill the air with black wings. A visionary
supporter of aviation, Powell urged black youth to carve out their
own destinyto become pilots, aircraft designers, and business
leaders in the field of aviation.