The Maker of Pilots: Aviator and Civil Rights Activist Willa Beatrice Brown

Today’s post comes from Jennifer Johnson, a curator at the National Archives at Kansas City.

Willa Beatrice Brown is featured in the nationwide traveling exhibit One Half of the People: Advancing Equality for Women. Perhaps one of the less recognizable names, but certainly as noteworthy, she was a woman who achieved great success despite limited access and opportunities.

Brown made a career in an industry—and provided a pathway for men and women after her—at a time when African Americans were thought unfit to fly, described as “unintelligent, immoral, and lacking in courage.”

“None were Contemplated”

During World War I, the first African American pilot Eugene Ballard served with the French Foreign Legion as infantryman and briefly as a pilot on the Western Front. He was awarded several French war medals including the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre. 

Eugene Ballard, ca. 1918. (Records of the Federal Aviation Administration, National Archives)

In 1922 an African American woman Bessie Coleman acquired her pilot’s license in France. Coleman could not earn a pilot’s license in the United States, nor did she have any flight training opportunities.  

Bessie Coleman, ca. 1922. (Records of the Federal Aviation Administration, National Archives)

In 1935 West Point cadet Benjamin O. Davis—later Lt. General Davis of the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group—was rejected from pilot training school by the Chief of the Army Air Corps. The reason stated that “there were no black units in the Army Air Corps and none were contemplated.” 

Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, ca. 1941. (Records of the Federal Aviation Administration, National Archives)

Although Bessie Coleman tragically died young during a test flight, she, Eugene Ballard, Benjamin O. Davis, and others made up a small, talented group of black aviators during the 1920s and 1930s.

Coleman, from Chicago, was an inspiration to Willa Beatrice Brown, who took her first flight in Chicago in the early thirties. Within a decade of Brown’s first flight, she went from flying enthusiast to aviator, flight instructor, and later officer and civil rights activist, creating a path for thousands of black men and women to become pilots.

Brown’s efforts to establish a training school for African American Air Force cadets led to the creation of the Army Training facility at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1941. Later, her continued political work and activism contributed to a major civil rights victory in 1948, when President Harry Truman signed E.O. 9981, ending racial segregation in the military. 

Chicago in the 1930s, a center for black aviation 

Before Willa Brown was a director of a flying school and an officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), she worked a variety of jobs to support herself. Working as a teacher when she took her first flight in in the early 1930s, her new hobby began as Chicago became the center for black aviation.

Brown began taking lessons at the racially segregated Harlem Airport outside Chicago, joined a black flying club called the Aero Challenger Club, and met pilot, plane mechanic, and future husband Cornelius Coffey. From 1934 to 1937, while she trained to be a pilot, she earned her master mechanic’s certificate and a master’s in Business Administration at Northwestern University. Not long after, Brown gained her first “first” in 1938, when she became the first black woman to be licensed as a private pilot in the United States. 

From full-time aviator to activist

In August 1937, Brown, Coffey, and ten others founded the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA), which eventually included more than 2,000 members and chapters across the Midwest and East Coast. In 1938, Brown and Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport. Their school, the first flight school owned and operated by African Americans, was created to train black men to fly and provide cadets to the U.S. Air Force.

“Lola Albright and Willa Brown, black pilots, at Harlem Airport, Chicago where Miss Brown, along with Cornelius Coffey, operated the Coffey School of Aviation.” (Records of the Federal Aviation Administration, National Archives)

In between flying lessons with her students and running the business side of the school, Brown also managed Brown’s Luncheonette on site. Chauncey Spencer, a former student at Coffey and founding member of the NAAA, said, “Willa was persistent and dedicated. She was the foundation, framework, and builder of people’s souls. She did it not for herself, but for all of us.”

As World War II began in Europe, a September 1939 TIME magazine article reported dire predictions if the United States were to enter, such as “100% loss of first-line combat planes” to be expected in the first months. If this proved true, a vast number of experienced pilots would need to step in.

Willa Brown, then 33 years old and director of the Coffey School, was ready. Not only was she a leader in the Chicago community of aviators, she was a ceaseless promoter of them. Willa Brown was in the same 1939 TIME issue covering her efforts: “She did work avidly to interest fellow Negroes in flying, to help obtain for them a share in the CAA’s training program.”

And she was paying attention when Congress appropriated $5,675,000 for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to begin 220 pilot training programs across the country. The Coffey School of Aeronautics was authorized as a CAA school by January 1940. Brown’s roles were director and coordinator of training. 

In addition to the CAA training school, letters from Brown to numerous leaders in Washington, DC, show her tireless efforts for their school to be part of the Army training program. Despite Brown’s disappointment that the Army would not allow the Coffey School of Aeronautics to train pilots for the Army, their school was selected to provide black trainees for the Air Corps’s pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This pilot training program led to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Brown trained nearly 200 of the men and women who went on become cadets or instructors.

Many of her former students made up the 99th Fighter Squadron, also known as the “Red Tails.” In a 1941 letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Brown alluded to her successes and also the barriers writing, “During the past three years I have devoted full time to aviation, and for the most part marked progress has been made. . . . I have, however, encountered several difficulties—several of them I have handled very well, and some have been far too great for me to master.”

Brown continued her work at Coffey, and in 1942 she achieved another “first” when she was the first black woman promoted to officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). 

Brown and her male colleagues being sworn in as officers of the Civil Air Patrol, 1942. (Records of the Federal Aviation Administration, National Archives)

Another first, and finally integration

Not long after World War II, Brown and her husband closed the Coffey School of Aeronautics. She remained politically active and continued to advocate for equality for all in the air. Her dream was realized on July 26, 1948 when President Truman signed E.O. 9981, which abolished segregation and ordered full integration of the armed forces.

Brown continued teaching in high schools, focusing on aeronautics and business subjects until she retired in 1971. In 1972 Brown was the first black woman appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board and served on the board until 1974.

“One Half of the People” is currently on a three-year nationwide tour as part of the NARA-wide Rightfully Hers commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. 

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