Early Black Pilot Found Racial Equality in the Sky
America’s struggle for racial equality has been waged on many fronts, including in the air, where an all-but-forgotten group of black Angelenos played a leading role.
Their leader was a visionary engineer, William J. Powell, a one-time owner of a gas station chain who became a pilot, teacher and publisher.
In Los Angeles, he founded the nation’s first all-black flying school, launched the first all-black air shows and encouraged young African Americans to pursue careers in aviation when it was a field from which blacks were all but excluded.
A rare combination of educator and entrepreneur, Powell invested his life savings to finance the small group of pilots who founded the city’s Bessie Coleman Aero Club, honoring the world’s first licensed black pilot.
Powell enlisted bandleader Duke Ellington and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis as sponsors, making Los Angeles a national hub for black pilots. He even recruited and trained some of the future Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II pilots whose segregated squadron would destroy 260 German planes and damage 148.
Powell was born William Jennifer in Kentucky in 1897. Four years later, after his father died, he moved to Chicago with his mother and sister. Eventually, his widowed mother married a man named Powell who adopted her children.
At the start of World War I, Powell dropped out of college and joined the Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant. On the last day of the war, he inhaled poison gas that left him with a severely impaired lung for the rest of his life.
After his discharge, Powell returned to the University of Illinois, from which he graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1922. After marrying his college sweetheart, Lucille, he owned and operated a garage and a chain of five gas stations.
In 1927, three months after Charles Lindbergh descended from the sky at Le Bourget airfield in Paris, Powell, who happened to be in the French capital for an American Legion convention, took his first airplane ride. The thrill of that experience changed his life.
Rejected by a Chicago aviation school and the Army Air Corps, he paid $1,000 to enroll in the Warren School of Aeronautics in Los Angeles. Selling his gas stations, he packed up his family and headed for the promised land.
In 1929, Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club with offices in a Jefferson Boulevard storefront and at the Los Angeles Eastside airport on Whittier Boulevard. Along with pilot Irvin E. Wells, they recruited the club’s chief pilot, James Herman Banning, a barnstormer from Iowa and the nation’s first licensed black male pilot.
During daylight hours, Banning gave future airmen flying lessons, while Powell taught a free evening aeronautics class.
Lacking capital, Banning and Powell flew out of Los Angeles and headed for the Mississippi State Fair, where they were guaranteed $2,500 for exhibiting the club’s Kinner Crown airplane.
They never made it.
A malfunctioning compass threw them off course--way off course. When their fuel ran out, they ditched their aircraft in the sea off the small Baja village of Bahia de Los Angeles. The downed airmen lived for five days on sea snails and a can of tomatoes while making their way north to San Felipe.
Powell was not the sort of man to be put off by a little thing like falling out of the sky.
On Labor Day 1931, while most Angelenos were reveling in “La Fiesta” events, Powell staged the first “All-Negro Air Show” at the Eastside airport. A crowd of 15,000 watched the nation’s first black precision flying troupe--the “Five Blackbirds"--loop and spin and dive in formation.
The profit from the 50-cent admission enabled Powell to stage an even bigger and better show a few months later, with the proceeds earmarked to benefit those suffering through the Great Depression.
On Dec. 5, the day before the big event staged on behalf of the Associated City Employees Fund for the Unemployed, Mayor John Clinton Porter, County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz and Supervisor John R. Quinn officially welcomed Powell’s flying team.
Although seven Blackbirds actually performed, including one woman, singer Marie Dickerson--a frequent headliner at Culver City’s Cotton Club and Chicken Coop--it was Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a pilot known as the crown prince of black aviation, or the “Black Eagle,” who garnered all the attention.
However, Julian’s flamboyance, incompetence as a pilot and reputation as a scam artist quickly offended Powell, who eventually kicked him off the team.
More devoted and determined members went on to earn far wider notice. Operating on a small budget, Banning and Thomas C. Allen called themselves “the flying hobos” because they depended on the goodwill of the people they met for gasoline, parts and food. They became the first black pilots to fly coast to coast from Los Angeles to Long Island, N.Y., in 1932.
Using a plane pieced together from junkyard parts, they made the 3,300-mile trip in less than 42 hours aloft. But the flight actually required 21 days because they had to raise money at each stop.
The following year, Banning was a passenger in a biplane, sitting in the front open cockpit without controls. The Navy pilot, trying to impress his more accomplished passenger, pulled the nose of the tiny plane up into a steep climb.
It stalled and fell into a fatal spin as hundreds of horrified San Diegans watched. Banning was 32 when he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Powell continued to draw future black aviators with his 1934 book “Black Wings,” a blueprint for what he believed to be the future: black-owned and operated commercial airlines, training schools and aircraft manufacturing firms, promising “thousands of jobs for Negros.”
In 1935, he produced a documentary film, “Unemployment, the Negro and Aviation,” which Powell personally showed to church youth groups and ministers, using his own experiences to goad and inspire future airmen.
Even as his health began to decline, he never gave up, offering scholarships through his newsletter, Craftsmen Aero-News, for black youths willing to learn to fly.
Powell--who died in 1942--did not live to witness the heroism of his most distinguished proteges, the Tuskegee Airmen, who shot down not only Germans, but also the reprehensible delusions of Jim Crow.
Their victories helped give substance to Powell’s belief that equality in the sky would bring equality on the ground.