An Aviation Pioneer's Life in Documents

Posted on Thu, April 19, 2018
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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. 

Portrait of William Powell

Portrait of William J. Powell.

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.

Yearbook page

American Association of Engineers group photo from the 1923 University of Illinois Illio yearbook.  William J. Powell, fourth row from bottom, fourth from left.  Credit: Illini Media/Illio Yearbook

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.

Rows of men, members of Alpha Phi Alpha

13th Annual Convention, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Kansas City, Missouri, 1920.  William J. Powell, top row, third from right.

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.

Image of service station from brochure

Front page of advertising brochure for Powell’s Service Station, South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, owned by William J. Powell.

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.

Group photo of Pacific Coast Harmony Makers

The Pacific Coast Harmony Makers choir provided music for Hearts in Dixie, the first African-American feature film produced by a major studio.  William J. Powell, center row, second from the right.

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.

Family standing in front of airplane

William J. Powell and his family stand in front of a Fokker aircraft at Grand Central Airport, Glendale, California, in the 1930s.  (left to right) Cousin Gwendolyn, daughter Bernadyne, Powell, and wife Lucylle.

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.