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Born in 1897, William Powell was an African American pilot, engineer, and entrepreneur as a young adult.
In 1934 there were only 12 African Americans out of 18,041 pilots in the U.S., and out of 8,651 licensed mechanics, just two were African Americans. Airlines wouldn’t even allow African Americans as passengers. Powell set out to change that, becoming one of the most extraordinary people in the Golden Age of Flight in the process. Only an early death brought his career as an aviation pioneer to an end.
Powell grew up in a middle-class African American neighborhood in Chicago. He was a talented student working toward an electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served as a lieutenant in the racially segregated 317th Engineers and the 365th Infantry Regiment. He returned home after being exposed to poison gas and finished his engineering degree.
After graduation, he opened several successful gas stations and auto parts stores on the south side of Chicago, but sharing his generation’s infatuation with Charles Lindbergh and flight, he dreamed of going up in an airplane.
In 1927, while attending a reunion with American veterans in Paris, France, he got his chance. Powell visited Le Bourgeois Airport, the very place where Lindbergh had landed a few months earlier to conclude his solo flight across the Atlantic. A pilot took him on a tour over the city and he was quickly hooked on flying, making it his goal to become a pilot.
Flight school after flight school rejected him because of his race. He tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, but was also turned down. He could have gone to France to train, but preferred getting licensed in his own country. Finally, in 1928 he was accepted at a flight school in Los Angeles, whose students were a mix of nationalities from across the globe. He received his pilot’s license in 1932.
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