Poster from PA State Museum
Contributed by Calobe Jackson, Jr., 12-12-11
Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs
By Rachel Kranz 2004
Felton, William McDonald
(ca 1876-1930) owner of flying school, automotive entrepreneur, theatre and club owner
In his time William McDonald Felton was the owner of the largest black-owned automobile business in New York when he owned the Auto Transportation and Sales Company, a combined auto dealership and repair shop that he opened in 1902 and expanded in 1910. At its peak, the business took up four floors of a seven-story building, giving employment to 15 people. Felton also owned clubs and theatres, as well as becoming the owner of the first black-owned school to teach airplane mechanics when he founded the Auto and Aeroplane Mechanical School in 1919.
Felton, the son of Sonnay Felton, was born in Marshallville, Georgia, sometime around 1876. Because poor records were kept about African Americans in those days, his exact birth date and year are unknown, and little is known about his early life. Sometime during the 1890’s, he became a watch repairer, working first in Marshallville, then migrating to New York City in 1898.
When Felton arrived in New York, he opened a store to repair clocks, bicycles and guns. He was perceptive enough to see that automobiles were the wave of the future, so even though very few people owned cars in 1901, Felton became a partner is a school that taught chauffeurs (drivers). (Because cars were so new, the rich people who could afford them did not necessarily learn how to drive but rather hired chauffeurs to drive for them). In 1902, Felton opened a garage, which became a profitable enterprise. With the money he made, Felton opened the Fifty-Ninth Street theatre in New York City, in what was then a black neighborhood.
In 1914 Felton relocated to Steelton, Pennsylvania, where he opened a school to teach auto and airplane mechanics. Both automobiles and airplanes were relatively new inventions just coming into widespread use, and by learning and then teaching about these new machines, Felton was getting in on the ground floor of two growing industries. Indeed, schools that taught either of these subjects were rare-and thousands of young men were returning from World War 1, which had ended in 1919. Both black and white men came to Felton’s school. Felton also welcomed women into this school, an unusual move for the time. He even advertised that he would offer separate classes for men and women, on alternative days of the week. In 1921, he expanded and relocated his school, moving it to nearby Harrisburg, Pa.
After the move, Felton hired William Diehl, a World War 1 Pilot, to offer flying lessons. By this time, Felton had bought his own airstrip, becoming the first African American to own a flying school. He was able to advertise nationally in African-American publications such as the Chicago Defender and the Crisis that students could learn piloting, chauffeuring, automotive repair and airplane mechanics.
In 1923, Felton had constructed a new two-story building worth $100,000 for his Auto and Aero Mechanical School. In the same year, he announced his intentions for the further expansion of his airfield, though objections by local white people interrupted those plans. In 1924, however he did manage to expand his school, offering a home study program whereby students could take correspondence courses, (lessons received and sent by mail), in the repair of automobile and aircraft engines. Meanwhile, Felton had taken some of his profits from his interprises to open a small dance club in Harrisburg
Felton married Josephine Souza, of St. Kitts, British West Indies. The couple had one surviving son, William McDonald Felton , Jr. and a daughter Evelyn, who died while still a child. In May 1927, a fire destroyed Felton’s school. He died three years later in Harrisburg, in November 1930.
“Automotive Instructions Now Given in Your Own Home” Chicago Defender December 13, 1924
“ Conduct Automobile Schools in New York”
New York Age February 13, 1913
“New $100,000 Auto and Aero Mechanics School in Harrisburg to be Dedicated
Pittsburgh Courier October 27, 1923
“Scenes Typical of the Automobile and Aeroplane Mechanical School
Harrisburg Telegraph March 15,1919
Snider, Jill D. “ William McDonald Felton”
Encyclopedia of African American Business History ed. By Juliet E.K. Walker. Westport, Conn.
Greenwood Press 1999, pp 251-252