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This Day In History: July 27th
Aviation pioneer and entrepreneur William J. Powell used his short-lived career to empower African-Americans and encourage them to get ahead of the Golden Age of flight. Powell was one of the few African-American pilots to be trained and he also operated a first-of-its-kind aircraft manufacturing company.
Despite societal norms of the period, Powell managed to find success in the world of flying. He was born on July 27, 1897, in Kentucky, but his family relocated to Chicago when he was young. He attended the University of Illinois and enrolled in the engineering program before pausing his education to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I.
While serving, he worked in a segregated regiment as a lieutenant before being exposed to poisonous gas. He soon returned home to recoup from his injuries and complete his education. Following his graduation, Powell embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and opened a variety of businesses including a gas station and store for auto parts. He also developed an interest in aviation after being taken on a flight tour of Paris, France.
Powell began applying to pilot schools but was rejected from the majority of institutions due to his race. He finally received a break after applying to the Los Angeles School of Flight in California. He was able to earn his pilot license in 1932 and was also trained as a navigator and an aeronautical engineer. Powell was first to organize an all-African American air show in 1931 and brought out a crowd of 15,000.
During his aviation pursuits, Powell started the Bessie Coleman Aero Club and the Bessie Coleman Flying School in Los Angeles. Both organizations were established as a tribute to Bessie Coleman, a fellow African-American pilot, and the first licensed African-American female aviator. Additionally, the organizations also sought to promote aviation as a lucrative career and way of upward mobility for African-Americans. His club was unique because it accepted all genders and backgrounds.
Powell’s views on aviation were also reflected in his writings which include a published journal titled Craftsman Aero News and a book titled Black Wings. William J. Powell died on July 12, 1942, at the age of 45.