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August 13, 2020
Hubert Julian, showman and promoter of black aviation, points to a billboard announcing his appearance in a “Colored Air Circus” in Los Angeles in 1931. (National Air & Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

On December 6, 1931, thousands of Angelenos filled the field of the Los Angeles Eastside Airport in East Montebello Gardens. Although it was winter and the depths of the Great Depression, they forked over 50 cents to watch daredevils parachute from planes and airplanes fly in breathtaking formations. The Colored Air Circus, a benefit for the city’s unemployed, was one of the first airshows in the world piloted entirely by Black aviators.

Even the Los Angeles Times, known for ignoring events by and for people of color — to say nothing of its racist reporting on issues such as housing, segregation and police brutality —gave the airshow a good review:

“The ‘Black Eagle,’ known in private life as Col. Hugh Julian… and five other colored pilots kept nearly 10,000 necks craned skyward over Los Angeles Eastside Airport yesterday afternoon during the colored air circus conducted under the auspices of the Associated City Employees Fund for the Unemployed. Along with the “Black Eagle” flew the ‘Five Blackbirds’ stunt squadron of colored speed aces. Stunt and parachute leaps completed an afternoon of thrills.”

Lieutenant Paul Drake of the LAPD (Chris Chalk) stands in front of a billboard for the Colored Air Circus in season one, episode three of HBO’s “Perry Mason.” (screengrab)

Look closely at episode three of HBO’s Perry Mason reboot. During the scene where Mason (Matthew Rhys) attempts to extract more info about the death of a kidnapping and murder suspect from Lieutenant Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), you’ll spot a billboard for the Colored Air Circus.

William J. Powell’s U.S. Army American Expeditionary Force (AEF) Identity Card, circa 1918. He fought in WWI in the 365th Infantry. (US Army/Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum )

The real event was the brainchild of a lanky pilot and aviation educator named William J. Powell. A World War I veteran and successful owner of a chain of Chicago gas stations, Powell had become enthralled with flying in 1927, after taking his first spin above Paris. Turned away from numerous aviation schools because of his race, he was finally accepted into the Warren School of Aeronautics, located at 120 West Slauson Avenue, in 1928. After earning his pilot’s license, Powell worked to convince other African Americans that the burgeoning aviation industry offered them the opportunities they had been denied in many other occupations.

“There is a better job and a better future in aviation for Negroes than in any other industry,” he wrote in his autobiographical novel Black Wings, published in 1934. “And the reason is this; aviation is just beginning its period of growth, and if we get into it now, while it is still uncrowded, we can grow as aviation grows.”

A circular pinback button featuring a sepia portrait of aviator Bessie Coleman. The portrait is the one used on her aviation license issued by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.)

He expanded on this theory in the novel:

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There is before our eyes an infant industry that someday bids fair to become a bigger giant than any. We have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, an opportunity to help develop this industry — we have an opportunity to grow with this industry, an opportunity to become producers — what shall we do?”

To further his mission, Powell in 1928 founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, sponsored by bandleader Duke Ellington and boxer Joe Louis, according to the Los Angeles Times. The club was named after the world’s first licensed African American pilot, Bessie Coleman, who had died in 1926 in a plane crash near Jacksonville, Florida.

Under the auspices of the club, Powell, who had a degree in electrical engineering, began to teach aeronautics classes to men and women at Jefferson High School, located in South Los Angeles. During the day, he gave flying lesson to locals, including Marie Dickerson Coker (seen here dancing with friends in a delightful home movie), a fearless “high spirited, entertaining lady,” who danced and sang at popular L.A. jazz spots such as the famed Culver City Cotton Club.

An exterior night view of Cafe International/Sebastian’s Cotton Club at 6500 Washington Boulevard in Culver City. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Coker had become enthralled with flying after a chance encounter one evening. “I was working in Culver City at the Chicken Coop when these pilots walked in — in those days it was something to be a pilot, let alone a black one — anyway, they asked if I would like to go for a flight and I said yes,” Coker told the Los Angeles Sentinel. She was hooked and soon earned her pilot’s license.

According to aviation expert Phil Scott, author of several definitive articles on the Colored Air Circus including “The Blackbirds Take Wing” published in the journal Aviation History, Powell was inspired by the National Air Race held in L.A. in 1928. He decided to mount his own show, the “All-Negro Air Show,” at the Los Angeles Eastside Airfield on Labor Day, 1931.

William J. Powell, circa 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Attracting a crowd of approximately 15,000 people, the show featured the Negro Formation Flying Group made up of Powell, William Aikens and a charismatic aviator named Irvin Wells. A blimp dropped flowers in honor of Bessie Coleman. Lottie Theodore and Maxwell Love did parachute jumps.

Encouraged by the success of the event, Powell began to organize a larger show, the Colored Air Circus. He put together a flying team, known as the Blackbirds, and invited Coker to join. “This is going to be the greatest thing that you have ever gotten in to,” he told Coker, according to Scott. Powell also invited friend and frequent collaborator James Herman Banning, a famed aviator and the second licensed African American pilot, to headline the show.

Banning refused to perform without pay so Powell instead recruited a slick self-promoter who styled himself Col. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, and according to Dickerson, often wore a monocle. Julian called himself the “Black Eagle of Harlem” and the Washington Post reports he would later join the Ethiopian Air Force to fight against Italian fascists in the Italo-Ethiopian War.

“If someone could rid Julian of his spasmodic outbursts of egotism, there could hardly be a speaker found to excel him,” Powell later wrote.

Whatever Powell’s misgivings, he made sure Julian was hailed as the “greatest Negro flyer” and met with fanfare when he from New York. According to the Los Angeles Times, on December 5, 1931, the day before the Air Circus took place, dignitaries including L.A. Mayor John Clinton Porter met with the flyers in preparation for the big event.

On December 6, thousands of people (the L.A. Times counted 10,000; Powell claimed 40,000) crammed onto Eastside Airfield. Up first was Julian, who was supposed to free fall from a buzzing plane but instead parachuted over the crowd. His lackluster performance continued when he took to the skies. He had promised to perform “hair-raising stunts which never materialized,” Powell recalled. “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.”

Luckily, the Blackbirds “saved the day,” Powell later said. One by one, they took off over the airfield. According to Scott:

“Wells went first, then Aikens, Julian, Johnson, Matthew Campana, Coker and finally Powell. They flew to a nearby field and landed — all except for Julian, who later claimed he got lost. After waiting for him, the six gave up and took off once again, flying in a ‘V’ back to the field, then buzzing the crowd in a train, or ‘follow-the leader,’ as Coker described it. She recalled: ‘[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 show ended with parachute jumps by Maxwell Love and Marie Daughtry. According to aviation expert Scott, Powell’s Colored Air Circus received rave reviews in the Black press and demonstrated that Black Americans deserved their place in the skies.

Powell planned to stage 100 air shows across the country, however a plane crash and money trouble would quashed these ambitions. He continued to preach the gospel of African American aviation and, in 1935, made Unemployment, the Negro and Aviation. The film, shown to church groups, told the story of a young Black man discovering the promise of the aviation industry. Powell died in 1942, as the famed Tuskegee Airmen, some of whom he had supposedly taught, were training for World War II where they would destroy 261 enemy aircraft and fly 1,578 missions. (This was a different group than the Black men subjected to the horrors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, who were mostly farmers and sharecroppers ).

In Black Wings, Powell described what flight — and Bessie Coleman’s accomplishment — meant to Black people. “We have overcome that which was much worse than racial barriers,” he wrote. “We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.

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