When Willa Brown was born in 1906, the Wright Brothers had been flying for just over three years. By the time Brown began taking flight lessons, in the mid 1930s, there were between 700 to 800 licensed female pilots. Brown was also an activist. Her contributions to the growing field of aviation led to many changes, including the integration of the United States military.
Brown was greatly influenced by Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman, the first black female pilot. Due to racial and gender discrimination in the United States, Coleman was forced to obtain her license in France, through the Ecole d’Aviation de Freres Caudron, becoming the first black female pilot in the world. By the time Brown began to take flying lessons in 1934, several women, including Louise Thaden, Katherine Cheung (the first woman of Chinese ancestry to obtain a license), Phoebe Fairgrave Omelie, and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, had broken the gender barrier in the United States. Nevertheless Brown was the first black woman to break the racial barrier and obtain an aviator’s license in the United States.
Willa Beatrice Brown was born to Eric B. Brown, a minister, and Hallie Mae Carpenter Brown on January 26, 1906, in Glasgow, Kentucky. The family first moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, when Willa was six years old and then to Terre Haute, where she received most of her schooling. In 1923 Brown, who was a good student, graduated from Wiley High School. She then attended Indiana State Teachers College earning a bachelor’s degree in business, in 1927. Immediately upon graduation, Brown found employment as a teacher in Gary, Indiana, where she met and married her first husband, Wilbur Hardaway, an alderman; the marriage was short lived. In 1932 Brown moved to Chicago, where she found employment in the public school system.
Brown’s years in Chicago were extremely active. After teaching for two years, she returned to school, attending Northwestern University, where she received an MA in business in 1937. During her student days, she taught and worked at a variety of jobs.
She worked as a secretary to Calar Paul Page, director of the Chicago Relief Administration and as a social services worker for the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare. She was also a clerk for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization and for the United States Post Office and was secretary to Horace Cayton. On top of all these activities, Brown began taking flying lessons from Fred Schumacher at the Harlem Airport in Chicago. In 1935 she earned a masters certificate in aviation mechanics from the Aeronautical University and later joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association (CAPA), one of the first black pilot organizations. The CAPA was founded by Colonel John C. Robinson, one of Brown’s flight instructors, who was one of the first black graduates of Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University. It was at the Harlem airport that Brown met Cornelius R. Coffey, an instructor and a mechanic, whom she married and with whom she shared her passion for flying.
Brown participated in various flying events such as the Memorial flight for Bessie Coleman and air shows that featured entertaining flight demonstrations. She was also a shameless self-promoter by many accounts. One such account, reprinted on the Aeronautic Learning Laboratory for Science, Technology, and Research website, involved Brown seeking news coverage for a “negro” air show in 1936. Brown, who, evidently was tall, very good looking, and often wore the typical flight apparel of the day—a jacket, jodphurs, and boots—decided the best way to get the media interested in the show was to go to the media first instead of getting them to come and see her. Hence, she visited the Chicago Defender newspaper office. She was so striking and had such a strong presence that everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her. She announced who she was, stating that she was an “aviatrix” and described the upcoming show. Her tactic resulted in an audience between two to three hundred people. The event was also covered by Enoch P. Waters, a journalist who, in 1939, along with Brown and Coffey, co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA), an organization established and designed to facilitate the acceptance of blacks into the United States Air Force. Waters continued to cover most of Brown’s recruitment activities for several years, with the support of the Chicago Defender’s editor, Robert Abbott.
On June 22, 1938, Brown earned her pilot’s license. The following year, not only did she help found the NAAA, but she also began to teach flight lessons through the Work Project Administration’s adult education program. In 1940 Brown received her Civil Aeronautics Administration ground school instructor’s rating. In addition, she and Coffey founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Brown handled the administrative side of the business and taught many of the flight classes. In addition, she ran Brown’s Lunch Room, a small restaurant at the Harlem Airport. During the early 1940s Brown also taught aviation mechanics for the Chicago Board of Education.
Having established herself in the aviation business, Brown, who became the president of the Chicago branch of the NAAA, lobbied the U.S. government to integrate the U.S. Army Air Corp and to include blacks into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). In 1940 Congress authorized the admission of blacks into civilian flight training programs, and Brown was appointed coordinator for the CPTP in Chicago. She also helped organize Squadron 613-6 of the Civil Air Patrol, earning the rank of lieutenant, which made her the first black officer in the Civil Air Patrol. Within the following five years, Brown trained over two hundred pilots, some of whom became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Coffey School of Aeronautics closed in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. Brown, a tireless recruiter, went on to establish flight schools for children. She remained an activist, both in aviation organizations and politically, running for a U.S. Congressional seat in 1946, 1948, and in 1950. Although Brown did not win these elections, she attained another status as doing something “first”—she was the first black woman to run for Congress. In 1955 Brown married her third husband, the Reverend J.H. Chappell. During her marriage to Chappell, Brown became very active in the Westside Community Church in Chicago. She taught in the Chicago public school system until 1971, when she was sixty-five years old.
The following year, Brown was appointed to the FAA’s Women’s Advisory Board for her contributions to the aviation industry. Willa Brown did not have any children. She died of a stroke in Chicago on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86. She is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
Brown was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award, posthumously, by the Indiana State University Alumni Association in 2010.
Compiled by Neil Gale,Ph.D.