Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 987:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 987.

Today, a story about flying and freedom. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

William J. Powell was a bright black kid, born in Henderson, Kentucky, in 1899 and raised in Chicago. He was a top student and musical to boot. He interrupted his studies at the University of Illinois to serve in WW-I as an infantry lieutenant. After being badly wounded in a gas attack, he went back to Illinois to finish his electrical engineering degree.

All the while, all around him, ran the terrible informal segregation of the North, and the strict Jim Crow rules of the South. But Powell believed he had a solution: The Negro could repair in the sky what had been broken on earth.

In 1934 Powell wrote a thinly fictionalized autobiography, Black Wings. It tells how he visited Le Bourget Airfield soon after Lindbergh had landed there. How he took his first airplane ride -- how deeply moving it was. We learn how he was rejected by a flying school and by the Army Air Corps. How he was finally accepted into a Los Angeles flying school in 1928. By 1932 he was licensed, not just as a pilot, but as a navigator and as an aeronautical engineer as well. In Black Wings, he wrote,

I do not ally myself with [the] Negro who begs a White man for his job. I ally myself with that ... young progressive Negro who believes [he] has the brain, the ability, to carve out his own destiny.

Powell meant to fly around Jim Crow. The new technology of flight truly seemed to be a way to slip "the surly bonds of earth." By taking hold of the embryonic flight industry, black Americans could build their own economic independence.

He founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, named for the first black woman to fly. Coleman had been a stunt pilot who died in an air show crash in 1926. In 1931 Powell organized an all-Negro air show for the Club in Los Angeles. He drew 15,000 visitors.

Powell built his own flying school and shop. Everything he did had a clean solidarity to it. He wasn't an aerial showman or a dramatic public figure. He was death on shammery of any kind. His book sparkles with down-to-earth technical detail.

An old photo shows Joe Lewis in Powell's workshop, giving his good name to the cause. But Powell gave that cause its substance. He gave it his belief system -- his well-honed, bourgeois work ethic -- the most inexorable force in the world.

He died, still young, in 1942, probably from the after-effects of WW-I poison gas. Jim Crow outlived him. But Powell did live to see his work bear fruit in the Air Corps's new Tuskegee Airman unit of black fighter pilots. What he didn't live to see was a world where black airline pilots, and then black astronauts, were no longer unusual enough -- to be the stuff of stories like this.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Powell, W.J., Black Aviator, (with an introduction by Von Hardesty), Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Hardesty, V., and Pisano, D., Black Wings, Washington, D.C., National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1984, (see especially p. 7.)

Freydberg, E.H., Coleman, Bessie (1896-1926). Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed., Darlene Clark Hine, New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, pp. 262-263.

Moolman, V., Women Aloft, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981, pp. 43-45 (for more information on Bessie Coleman.)

By the end of 1932, only 14 Black pilots were licensed to fly in the United States. Powell, of course, was one of them. But he was the only one with additional licenses as well. He held licenses as both a navigator and as an aeronautical engineer. As a matter of interest, one black American flew in WW-I. He was Eugene Bullard, who flew, not with the Americans, but with the French. For more on the Tuskegee Airmen, and their distinguished service in WW-II, see Episode 516.

I am grateful to Dr. Linda Reed, Director of the UH African American Studies Program, for information on Bessie Coleman; and Ms. Esther Williams, of Southwest Airlines, for discussing with me the role of black pilots in one major airline. She reported that 24 out of 1869 Southwest pilots were black in 1994. That is only 1.3 percent, even so late in history. However Southwest proudly includes the name of Lou Freeman among those 24. Freeman was the first black chief pilot hired by any major carrier. And that was as recently as 1980.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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