It was in January 1911 when Charles Ward Chappelle presented at the First Industrial Aero Show, a showcase of aeronautical technologies in Brooklyn, New York. Ten years prior to that, the Wright Brothers’ flight had occurred. Almost everyone had become intrigued by powered flight or the idea of airplanes, and so was Chapelle, an African-American engineer and businessman who became well known for his award-winning long-distance airplane in 1911.
Being the only African American to participate in the First Industrial Aero Show that attracted thousands of investors, Chapelle’s long-distance airplane invention with its “unique design and capabilities” grabbed media attention and excited many, especially those in the African-American community.
The model was exhibited at the United States Aeronautical Reserve headquarters while Chapelle etched his name in aviation history. But he also proved to be an enterprising businessman.
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Born in Eatonton, GA in 1872, Chapelle’s father was Reverend George W Chappelle of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his mother, Anna Johnson Chappelle, was a homemaker with eighteen children.
By the age of ten, Chapelle was doing odd jobs including laying brick to raise money for himself and help in taking care of his large family. Attending Knox Institute and Morris Brown University in Atlanta, Georgia, Chapelle trained as an electrical engineer and architect, landing his first job as a teacher in White Plains, GA.
Then he moved to Philadelphia and worked as the first head electrician of US Steel for some time. In Manhattan where he moved to later, he worked as an architect erecting a number of buildings there. At the same time, he began visiting several countries in Africa, creating avenues that would enhance trade between the U.S. and Africa.
Then the Wright Brothers invented their first plane in 1903, influencing many including Chapelle, who soon became a member of the United States Aeronautical Reserve. Within a year, he had built a full-sized plane by himself.
After winning a medal following his display of an airplane at the 1911 First Industrial Aero Show, he turned to business, helping to establish the first African-American plane manufacturing company that same year and becoming its vice president. Two years later, Chapelle founded a trading company — the African Union company — bringing goods from Africa, particularly African resources like mahogany and cocoa, to America, according to a report.
To facilitate trade, the company, between 1913 to 1924 when Chapelle worked as the president and general manager, aimed at building infrastructure in Africa, particularly in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) where Chapelle had worked as chief engineer in December 1911.
In 1922 while he was still running the African Union company before it was disbanded in 1930, reports said the company’s value was estimated at three to ten million dollars. And during those years with the trading company, Chapelle lived in some African countries and parts of the U.S. before he finally settled in Philadelphia and worked in the city’s department of lands and buildings.
He passed away in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia in 1941. Since Chapelle’s airplane invention, several countries and inspiring individuals have stood in the face of obstacles and made major contributions to the aviation industry, paving the way for people to fly.