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
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.
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