Before William J. Powell became interested in aviation he served in a segregated unit of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. He was gassed by the enemy during the war and suffered from related health problems throughout his life. After the war Powell became an active member of the American Legion, a veterans organization chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919.
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 names—and their funds—to 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 destiny—to become pilots, aircraft designers, and business leaders in the field of aviation.