When the National Air and Space Museum Archives accepts a donation of someone’s personal collection, it is because the person and his or her related papers are considered to have a particular significance to the history of aviation and spaceflight. William J. Powell, an early African American aviation pioneer, definitely meets those criteria. The documents in his personal papers highlight his career with the American Expeditionary Forces and his work to support African Americans in aviation.
Other documents in the collection reveal Powell's personal side. After returning from his service with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, he attended the University of Illinois to study electrical engineering. In the university's 1923 yearbook, the Illio, his face stands out among the members of the American Association of Engineers.
Powell was also active in Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men. In 1920, he attended the 13th annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri.
While pursuing aviation as a serious avocation in Chicago, Powell owned and operated Powell’s Service Station and several filling stations on South Wabash Avenue, offering “Service with a Smile.” He also offered battery and radio services, which delivered 40 to 50 batteries daily.
After moving to California in 1929, Powell continued to be active in his local community. Having been a tenor soloist with the Berean Baptist Church choir in Chicago, he joined the Pacific Coast Harmony Makers in Los Angeles. The choir provided the music for the 1929 film Hearts in Dixie, the first African American feature film (and the first African American musical) produced by a major studio.
Powell’s collection also features his family, including his marriage certificate to wife, Lucylle. Lucylle and their children, Bernadyne and William Jr; his sister, Edna; and other family members frequently appear in photographs throughout the collection.
From these documents explored together, we can get a fuller glimpse into the life of the man behind the Museum's Black Wings exhibition. The majority of the documents from Powell’s collection can now be found online. An additional Powell-related collection, the William J. Powell (Craftsmen of Black Wings, Inc.) Photograph Collection, which was created from documents collected during the 1994 reissue of Powell’s book, Black Wings, can also be accessed online.