Willa Bernice Brown was an aviation pioneer and flight instructor, but she is unknown to almost all, even those knowledgeable about the history of flight. Born in Glasgow, Kentucky, in 1907, her parents gave her more opportunities than most other African Americans of the time. She grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and attended the Indiana State Teachers College, from which she received a B.A. in 1932 with majors in commerce and French. While taking classes, she also part-time taught at the segregated Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, specializing in commercial studies.
In 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, budget cuts forced the high school’s closing and Brown had to find other employment. Through 1939 she held a succession of federal and state government jobs as a secretary. For instance, she worked for a time as private secretary to Edna Paul Paige, director of the Chicago Relief Administration, and for Dr. Julius Jarvis of the University of Chicago. While working, Brown also enrolled in Northwestern University, and completed an M.A. in business administration there in 1938.
While in Chicago in 1933 Brown first showed interest in aviation and enrolled in the Aeronautical University where she earned a certificate as a master mechanic. She then met and received flight instruction from a local black aviator, Cornelius R. Coffey, at the Harlem Airport, near Oak Lawn, on Chicago’s south side. Although she was flying as early as 1935, Brown did not receive a limited commercial pilot license until 1937, certificate number 43814.
Immediately seeing the possibilities of aviation for the future, Brown and Coffey formed a partnership in 1935 and opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Brown became the director of aeronautics for this school, but it was a difficult time for the school and both worked other jobs to remain solvent. Brown recalled in 1941 that she worked 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week at several jobs: instructing at the school; running Brown’s Airport Inn, a lunch counter/snack bar at Chicago’s Harlem Airport; and teaching a class on aviation for the Chicago Board of Education. The hard work paid off, Brown and Coffey kept the school open. The team effort also drew Brown and Coffey together personally, and they married in July 1939. She chose not to change her name.
Willa Brown was also a tireless promoter of the positive role that black Americans could play in aviation. She began participating in airshows soon after receiving her pilot’s license to demonstrate the parity of the races. For instance, on October 26, 1938, she and Coffey participated with other black flyers in a Chicago airshow held at Harlem Airport. Before a crowd estimated at 30,000, black aviators took first and second place in the first airshow in the U.S. where the races competed together. Brown also helped establish and served as executive director of the National Airmen’s Association, a professional organization for black flyers. This society served the dual purpose of working for the promotion of aviation in the U.S., as did such groups as the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce and the National Aeronautic Association, and for acceptance of black Americans within the industry.
In 1939 a new chapter opened for Brown and the Coffey School of Aeronautics when it was given the task of training several black aviators under the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) that had been inaugurated by the federally operated Civil Aeronautics Authority. The CPTP had been established in 1938 as a war preparedness measure to help bolster the number of pilots in the U.S. which could be incorporated into the military in the event of hostilities.
In it the Civil Aeronautics Authority funded pilot training for selected individuals at universities and aeronautical schools throughout the nation. With its support, the Coffey School of Aeronautics quickly became a center of black aviation training. The CPTP allowed Brown to make the claim that the Coffey school was the first black owned and operated flying school in the U.S. to receive government approval.
Brown then went one better. She proposed the establishment of a Chicago Training Center for black flyers that would recruit the most promising students from around the country for flight instruction and then induction in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Brown, both a vocal and thoughtful proponent of aviation by blacks, won the support of the Chicago Board of Education, the WPA, and the Civil Aeronautics Authority. She also apparently got the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the proposal became a reality in the spring of 1940 when the first group of 30 trainees, drawn from applicants from all over the U.S., began their training. The first graduates of the school were taken into the military, a part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and became members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron that served in the European Theater of Operations.
Brown also joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), established in December 1941, and became its first black woman officer. The CAP was an arm of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, allowing non-military pilots to continue flying while engaged in civil defense activities. She helped organize Squadron 613-6, based at the Harlem Airport, and served as its adjutant.
During World War II Brown remained heavily involved in CAP and training efforts for the Army Air Forces. At the end of the war she got heavily involved in Republican Party politics in Chicago, even running for Congress in 1946. She also became a leader in her Chicago ward during the latter 1940s. Her marriage to Coffey ended during this same period and she later remarried to J.H. Chappell of Chicago, where she resided until her death on July 18, 1992.
In my estimation this is the type of story that would make a great movie, one that is both moving and compelling. Perhaps then, Willa Brown will be fully out of the shadows of aeronautical history.