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PHOTO ESSAY

Early African American Aviators

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Willa Brown

Willa Brown in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number WEB11675-2010

WILLA BROWN: THE ACTIVIST

Willa Beatrice Brown was born on 22 January 1906 in Glasgow, Kentucky. She came to Chicago in 1932 after receiving a bachelor's degree from Indiana State Teachers College and teaching in Gary, Indiana. While earning a master's degree in business education from Northwestern University, she also studied airplane mechanics at the Aeronautical University in Chicago's Loop in 1934 and 1935.

Brown worked closely with Cornelius Coffey at the Challenger Air Pilots Association. She served as the public relations person for the club, and she proved very successful at attracting press coverage for Challenger air shows. Enoch Waters, city editor of the Chicago Defender, remembered seeing Brown for the first time. As Waters noted, "When Willa Brown, a young woman wearing white jodhpurs, jacket, and boots, strode into our newsroom in 1936, she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters, which had been clacking noisily, suddenly went silent...She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her voice...In a businesslike manner she explained that she was an aviatrix and wanted some publicity for a Negro air show at Harlem Airport on the city's southwest side...Fascinated both by her and the idea of Negro aviators, I decided to follow up the story myself...So happy was Willa over our appearance that she offered to take me up for a free ride. She was piloting a Piper Cub...It was a thrilling experience, and the maneuvers–figure eights, flip-overs, and stalls–were exhilarating, though momentarily frightening. I wasn't convinced of her competence until we landed smoothly." (Hart, 1992)

Enoch Waters' fascination with Brown mirrored Robert Abbott's fascination with Bessie Coleman nearly 15 years earlier. In fact, Brown herself had been inspired by Bessie Coleman. In addition to being a member of the Challenger Air Pilots Association, Brown also belonged to the Chicago Girls Flight Club, during which time she purchased her own airplane. She earned her pilot's license in 1937, becoming the first American woman to do so, the same year she received her master's degree from Northwestern University. In 1937, Brown also co-founded the National Airmen's Association of America, an organization that worked to allow the entry of African Americans into the United States Air Force. In 1939 she received a commercial pilot's license and, following in Coleman's footsteps, became the first black woman to make a career of aviation.

When Brown decided to learn to fly, she enrolled at Cornelius Coffey's Flying School at Harlem Airport, just outside Chicago. Brown soon partnered with Coffey not only in the context of the aviation school, but also by becoming his wife. It was the second marriage for Brown and the first for Coffey. Following World War II, the two ended their marriage, but continued to work closely together.

In 1940, Brown and Coffey founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where approximately 200 pilots were trained in the next seven years. Some of these pilots became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, and later came to be known as the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. Brown's efforts were directly responsible for the squadron's creation, which led to the integration of the military in 1948. It was also Brown, working under the tutelage of Coffey and Robinson, who initiated the annual memorial fly-over of Bessie Coleman's grave to commemorate the woman who had inspired them all.

In 1941, Brown became the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the U.S. government named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit. By adding her mechanic's license in 1943, she became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic's license and a commercial pilot's license. Brown also lobbied Washington for the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the Army Air Corps. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Brown was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Women's Advisory Board in 1972 in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, instructor, and activist. She passed away on 18 July 1992, and was inducted into her native state of Kentucky's Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.

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