Willa Brown

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Willa Beatrice Brown

Willa Beatrice Brown
(1906-1992)

As a young high school teacher in Gary, Indiana, and later as a social worker in Chicago, Willa Brown felt that her talents were being wasted. She sought greater challenges and adventures in life, especially if they could be found outside the limited career fields normally open to African Americans.

She decided to learn to fly, studying with Cornelius R. Coffey, a certified flight instructor and expert aviation mechanic at one of Chicago's racially segregated airports. She earned her private pilot's license in 1938. Later, Brown and Coffey married and established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport in Chicago, where they trained black pilots and aviation mechanics.

Together with Cornelius Coffey and Enoch P. Waters, Willa Brown helped form the National Airmen's Association of America in 1939, whose main goal was to get black aviation cadets into the United States military. As the organization's national secretary and the president of the Chicago branch, Brown became an activist for racial equality. She continually lobbied the government for integration of black pilots into the segregated Army Air Corps and the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), the system established by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to provide a pool of civilian pilots for use during national emergencies. Subsequently, when Congress finally voted to allow separate-but-equal participation of blacks in civilian flight training programs, the Coffey School of Aeronautics was chosen for participation in the CPTP. Brown became the coordinator for the CPTP in Chicago. Later, her flight school was also selected by the U.S. Army to provide black trainees for the Air Corps pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute.

Willa Brown eventually became the coordinator of war-training service for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and later was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration's Women's Advisory Board. She was the first black female officer in the Civil Air Patrol and the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot's license in the United States.