They called them “Race Pilots” back then, but the expression had nothing to do with flying small airplanes with big engines around pylons while trying to bust some speed barrier. Instead they broke the racial barrier. More than two decades after the Wright brothers, only one African-American, Bessie Coleman, had a pilot certificate. One man took it upon himself to change that—and in the process formed history’s first all-black aerobatic team.
Thin, lanky, and invariably well-dressed, William Powell was born in 1899, and grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago. He studied engineering at the University of Illinois at Champaign, but left to join the Army when America entered World War I. Powell was gassed by the Germans on November 11, 1918—the last day of the war. His health ruined, he returned to Chicago and finally received his engineering degree. In the years that followed he bought as many as five gas stations and an auto parts store in the city’s largely black South Side. “He was a natural-born entrepreneur,” says Von Hardesty, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Like many young men of the day, Powell yearned to fly. He got his chance in 1927, attending an American Legion convention in Paris. Flying as a passenger above the Eiffel Tower, Powell decided to become a pilot.
This was the era of Jim Crow laws, which strictly enforced racial separation, especially in the South. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, in the rear cars of the train. Airlines wouldn’t fly black people as passengers. “I actually believe that with the proper leadership,” Powell wrote, “Negroes can be systematically trained to the use of the airplane to such an extent that a great airplane industry might spring up.” Not only would blacks avoid the indignation of sitting in the back of the airliner, they could also pour thousands of dollars back into the black community.
After the American Legion convention, Powell returned to the United States in search of a flying school. He tried Chicago, but was turned down because, he was told, the white students would walk out if a black man walked in. He tried to enlist in the Army Flying Corps, but the recruiter told him the War Department wouldn’t accept “colored men in the air corps.” After writing to schools everywhere, one in Los Angeles accepted him. The price was $1,000, then three times the average workingman’s annual salary. But Powell had the money.
In 1929, after settling in Los Angeles and getting his certificate, Powell founded the first all-black aviation organization, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. “It was open to everyone of any race,” says Hardesty. “It also had a lot of women involved in it.” Powell held evening classes in aeronautics at Jefferson High School in south Los Angeles, and became friends with black entertainers there making “race” movies, including Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and boxer Joe Louis, to name a few. He sought their support, and they gave it, in both money and public appearances.
That same year Powell attended the National Air Races in Los Angeles. There he decided to put on an airshow himself. An all-black airshow, set for Labor Day 1931. Now all Powell needed was black pilots to perform. Powell himself could fly, and there was Irvin Wells. Clean-cut, tall, and handsome, Wells also had a pilot certificate. William Aikens (of whom not much is known) filled out the trio—what Powell called the first Negro Formation Flying Group in the United States. They flew in formation, though not in aerobatic formation. Two other blacks, Maxwell Love and Lottie Theodore, made parachute jumps. There were no accidents, which demonstrated to the public that blacks indeed had the skills to handle an airplane. Nearly 15,000 spectators showed up, or at least that’s what Powell told the newspapers. “That’s kind of PR,” says Hardesty. “Who knows whether that claim is true or not?”
After the first show’s success, Powell scheduled another, The Colored Air Circus, for December 6 at the Eastside Airport in Los Angeles. He wanted to put together the largest group of black pilots in the air at one time—five pilots at least. He even came up with a name for them: “The Five Blackbirds.” Along with Wells and Aikens he recruited William Johnson, of whom—like just about everyone who flew with the Blackbirds—not much else is known. The last pilot Powell signed was a woman, Marie Dickerson Coker, “[A] very high-spirited, entertaining lady,” says historian Philip Hart. Thin, with a broad smile, Coker performed the “shake dance,” a sort of erotic belly dance practiced by the likes of Mae West. After she got her license Powell asked her to become a Blackbird.
As for airplanes, Powell scrounged up a Challenger Commander, a Hisso-Eaglerock, a Waco 10, a Kari-Keen, and a Wright J6 Travellaire. They were not all painted black. “This is going to be the greatest thing that you have ever gotten in to,” he told Coker.
James Herman Banning, a serious young man from Iowa and the nation’s second black pilot, had come out to Los Angeles from the Midwest and trained the trio in the first show. “[He] was a very lovely person,” said Coker in a 1983 interview with Hart. “I never saw him angry; he was a very sweet person.” But he also refused to fly in the show unless he got paid for it. And he had one other demand: “He wanted to be the featured pilot,” says Hart. Powell didn’t take a liking to paying him—he said Banning had already received 300 hours of free flying time courtesy of the Aero Club. Instead Powell hired Hubert Julian, who called himself “The Black Eagle of Harlem.” Julian boasted of having 1,000 hours in the air. And boast was what Julian did best. “If someone could rid Julian of his spasmodic outbursts of egotism there could hardly be a speaker found to excel him,” Powell wrote later.
Some 40,000 people turned out to see the world’s first all-black aerobatic team perform at the first all-black Air Circus. For the first act Julian took off—as a passenger—to perform a triple parachute jump. A triple jump meant that after the first canopy opened he would cut it away, freefall, then open the second canopy, which he’d also cut away, freefall, then he’d open and land with the third. Julian apparently lost his nerve and descended beneath that first parachute. Then, as the headlining act, he climbed his airplane to 6,000 feet and, according to a local black newspaper, “[With] a series of loops, rolls, twists, and turns in his plane, Col. Hubert Julian today has become a favorite with Los Angeles airmen and women.” That account, unfortunately, was written prior to the performance. Powell told a different story: “[The] hair-raising stunts which never materialized. He didn’t even make a sharp bank, but soon descended, asking for a glass of water, stating that it was quite different to do all that hard flying and make a parachute jump also.”
After Julian, the Blackbirds took to the air. They flew past the crowd in a train, or “Follow the leader,” as Marie Dickerson Coker called it. “[Powell] would lead, the first one would fall off, then the second one, then the third one, and we would make a line and come on back around and make another string and come off. That’s all we did and that was good enough.” The crowd reacted ecstatically, and the show received glowing reviews in the press. The black press. The white press didn’t cover it.
Fired up, Powell now developed typically ambitious plans for the Blackbirds: They’d fly a 100-city tour across the United States to promote his vision of black-run aviation industries. But while flying cross-country to raise money, he crashed a borrowed biplane and had to rely on church donations to get back to Los Angeles. That ended The Five Blackbirds.
James Banning hooked up with Oklahoman Thomas Allen (also a pilot) and performed in a series of airshows in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake City. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, Banning would entertain spectators with a “dead-motor landing from an altitude of 3,000 feet,” along with “stunt[s in] an airplane,” and “loop the loops.” They earned about $1,000 a show, astronomical—especially for 1932. In February 1933, while flying along as a passenger in a Navy biplane at an airshow in San Diego, the airplane went into an inverted spin. It never recovered; both men died in the crash. Before they took off, a local flight instructor refused to allow Banning to fly the airplane because, the instructor said, he wasn’t a capable pilot.
About the same time Wells received his commercial license, the first ever earned by a black. But by the 1940s, after 12 years in the air, he gave it up for good and opened a sporting goods store in central Los Angeles. His great-nephew, Andre Vaughn, knew little about Wells’ days in the air. “My father used to talk about how he went up with him until his mother put a stop to it,” Vaughn says. Wells died in 1973.
In 1935 Italy invaded the African nation of Ethiopia. Hubert Julian left Los Angeles to lead the Ethiopian air force—which consisted of three airplanes. After destroying a third of the fleet, Julian returned to the United States and allegedly trained with the Tuskegee Airmen, but he actually got kicked out. The Black Eagle of Harlem died in 1967. He was followed by Thomas Allen in 1989 and Marie Coker in 1990. Powell himself died in 1942 at the Veterans Hospital in Sharon, Wyoming, of complications resulting from having been gassed more than two decades before. His wife and two children were with him. They buried him in the town where he was born, Henderson, Kentucky.
Powell’s Five Blackbirds only performed those two shows, but they demonstrated their skill and talent to all the people down below, and paved the way for race-busting pilots who followed.
Phil Scott is a freelance writer living in Tampa, Florida.