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Willa Brown
Brown as a lieutenant in the United States Civil Air Patrol
Born (1906-01-22)January 22, 1906
Glasgow, Kentucky, US
Died July 18, 1992(1992-07-18) (aged 86)
Chicago, Illinois, US
Other names Willa Brown Chappell
Occupation Pilot, lobbyist, activist, teacher
Known for Civil rights leader
First female African American pilot licensed in the United States
First African American officer in the United States Civil Air Patrol
First African American woman to run for United States Congress
Spouse(s) Wilbur Hardaway (m. 1929–31)
Cornelius Coffey (m. 1947)
Rev. J. H. Chappell (m. 1955)

Willa Beatrice Brown (January 22, 1906 – July 18, 1992) was an American aviator, lobbyist, teacher, and civil rights activist.[1] She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license in the United States,[2] the first African American woman to run for the United States Congress, first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol, and first woman in the U.S. to have both a pilot's license and an aircraft mechanic's license.[3][4]

She was a lifelong advocate for gender and racial equality in the field of aviation as well as in the military. She not only lobbied the U.S. government to integrate the United States Army Air Corps and include African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), she and Cornelius Coffey co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, distinguishing it as the first private flight training academy owned and operated by African Americans in the United States. She trained hundreds of pilots, several of whom went on to become Tuskegee Airmen; the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen has been credited to Brown's training efforts.[5][6]

Brown remained politically and socially active in Chicago long after the Coffey School closed in 1945. She ran in Congressional primary elections in 1946 and 1950 and taught in the Chicago Public School System until 1971, when she retired at age 65. Following her retirement, she served on the Federal Aviation Administration's Women's Advisory Committee until 1974.

Early life

Willa Beatrice Brown was born to Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown on January 22, 1906, in Glasgow, Kentucky.[2] She graduated from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, and attended Indiana State Teachers College where she graduated in 1927 with a bachelor's degree. Ten years later she earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern University.[3][7]

Brown taught in Gary, Indiana, at Emerson High School's Roosevelt Annex from 1927 to 1932.[7][8] She then moved to Chicago, where she worked in a variety of jobs, including secretarial work, social work, and teaching.[9] In 1934, she met John C. Robinson, who introduced her to the Challenger Air Pilots Association, a group of African American pilots.[1]

Aviation career

A young Willa Brown on an airfield

Lola Albright (left) and Willa Brown (right) at Harlem Airport, Chicago Illinois, USA

In 1934, Brown began studying at Chicago's racially segregated Harlem Field with certified flight instructor Cornelius Coffey, an expert in the field of aviation mechanics. She was one of few women who attended Curtiss–Wright Aeronautical University where she studied aircraft maintenance and earned an aircraft mechanic's license in 1935.[4][8] She earned a private pilot's license in 1938[10] and a commercial pilot's license in 1939, becoming the first African American woman to earn either type of license in the United States.[1][11][lower-alpha 1]

Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey and Enoch P. Waters worked together to form the National Negro Airmen Association of America, later renamed to National Airmen's Association of America which was incorporated in 1939. Their primary mission was to attract more interest in aviation, help develop a better understanding in the field of aeronautics, and increase African American participation in both fields.[13] Brown was the national secretary and president of the organization's Chicago branch, and an activist for racial equality. She also took on public relations duties for the organization, and flew to colleges and spoke on the radio to get African Americans interested in flying.[8] She and Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, located at Harlem Airport. They established the school for the purpose of training black pilots and teaching aviation mechanics.[14]

Office for Emergency Management publication featuring Brown

She lobbied the government as an advocate for the integration of black pilots into a then-segregated Army Air Corps and federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). She also worked to disprove a 1925 Army War College study which had deemed African Americans unfit to fly.[11] She lobbied the federal government to award CPTP contracts to train African American pilots. In 1940, she was appointed coordinator of the Chicago units of the CPTP, and the Coffey School was selected by the U.S. Army Air Corps as a feeder school to provide black students to its pilot training program.[9] Nearly 200 students from the school went on to join the Tuskeegee Airmen.[15] In 1942, she attained the rank of Lieutenant in Civil Air Patrol Squadron 613-6, becoming the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol.[8] She was later appointed war-training service coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Authority.[16]

Postwar career

In 1946, Brown ran in the Republican Party primary elections for Illinois's 1st congressional district, becoming the first African American woman to run in a congressional primary election. Her campaign focused on improving the opportunities for African Americans, including creating an airport owned and used by African Americans.[17] She was defeated by William E. King.[18] She ran for the same Congressional seat in the 1950 Republican primary election, and was defeated by Archibald Carey Jr..[19]

Brown returned to teaching in high schools from 1962 until her retirement in 1971. She taught business and aeronautics.[8] She served on the Women's Advisory Committee of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1972 to 1975. She was the first black woman to serve on that committee.[8]

Personal life

Brown was married three times. Her first marriage was to Wilbur J. Hardaway, an African American firefighter. They met while Brown was teaching in Gary, Indiana, married in 1929, and divorced in 1931.[8]

Brown was described as follows:

When Willa Brown, a shapely young brownskin woman, wearing white johdpurs, a form fitting white jacket and white boots, strode into our newsroom, in 1936, she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters suddenly went silent...Unlike most visitors, [she] wasn't at all bewildered. She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her husky voice as she announced, not asked, that she wanted to see me.

In 1947, she and Cornelius Coffey married, but the marriage did not last long. Her final marriage was to Reverend J. H. Chappell, pastor of the Chicago West Side Community Church, in 1955.[8] She was a widow by 1991.[20]

Awards and recognition

  • In 1939, Brown was cited in the 76th Congressional Record for achievements in aviation.[8]
  • Time magazine profiled Brown in its September 25, 1939 issue.[21][22]
  • In 2002, Women in Aviation International named Brown one of the 100 most influential women in aviation and space.[23]
  • In 2003, a decade after her death, Willa Beatrice Brown was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.[4][24]
  • In 2010, Brown was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award by the Indiana State University Alumni Association.[25]
  • Historical marker #238, located at the intersection of Race and Washington Streets in Glasgow, Kentucky.[26] The marker was erected in recognition of Willa Brown Chappell, "the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license in the United States".[27][28]




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gubert, Betty Kaplan. "Brown, Willa (1906–1992), pilot and aviation educator" (in en). Oxford University Press. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Davis, Edmond. "Brown, Willa B. (1906–1992)". 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Freydberg, Elizabeth Hadley (1994). "Brown, Willa Beatrice (1906–1992)". Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 184–185. ISBN 0-253-32774-1. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "Masterful Willa Brown (1906-1992)". January 1, 2010. 
  5. Grant, Kelli. "Our History | 99s in Aviation History | Women in Aviation". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Willa Brown Chappell". March 31, 2020. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Davis, Edmond (July 25, 2012). "Willa B. Brown (1906-1992)". 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 Gubert, Betty Kaplan; Sawyer, Miriam; Fannin, Caroline (2002). Distinguished African Americans in aviation and space science. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press. pp. 49–52. ISBN 978-1573562461. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Smith, Jessie Carney (1992). Notable Black American women. Gale Research. pp. 69–71. ISBN 978-0810391772. 
  10. "Young Woman Flyer Gets Pilot License: Willa Brown, Chicago Aviatrix, Can Carry Passengers, Give Instructions or Make Cross-Country Flights". The Pittsburgh Courier. July 2, 1938. p. 11. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 "Chicago and the Tuskegee Airmen". Chicago Tribune. January 19, 2015. p. Sec. 1–14. 
  12. Dawson, V.P.; Bowles, M.D. (2005). Realizing the Dream of Flight: Biographical Essays in Honor of the Centennial of Flight, 1903-2003. NASA SP. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Division, Office of External Relations. p. 5. Retrieved April 5, 2020. 
  13. "National Airmen Association of America: Tuskegee Airmen". August 16, 1939. 
  14. Montague, Carlos. "Willa Brown: Pioneer for Female & African American Aviation" (in en-us). 
  15. "Willa Beatrice Brown". 
  16. "Willa Brown". 
  17. "Willa B. Brown Views Politics as New Crusade". Chicago Daily Tribune. March 31, 1946. p. S4. 
  18. Wilson, Edward (April 11, 1946). "Busbey Victory Outstanding in Congress Races". Chicago Daily Tribune. p. 2. 
  19. Smith, Harold (April 13, 1950). "G. O. P. Starts Work to Regain Congress Posts: Leaders Hail Primary Spats as Robustness". Chicago Daily Tribune. p. 19. 
  20. "Black female flyer gave life to aviation". The Dispatch. March 23, 1991. pp. 4. 
  21. "National Affairs: School for Willa" (in en-US). Time. 1939-09-25. ISSN 0040-781X.,33009,761956,00.html. 
  22. "School for Willa". September 25, 1939. p. 20. 
  23. "100 Most Influential Women in the Aviation and Aerospace Industry | Women in Aviation International". 
  24. "Willa Beatrice Brown". June 20, 2014. 
  25. McCormick, Mike. "The amazing life of Willa Beatrice Brown". 
  26. "Willa Brown Chappell Historical Marker". June 16, 2016. 
  27. "Historical Markers, (page 2)". June 20, 2014. 
  28. Riddle, Becky. "Tour - Explore KY's New Historical Markers". 

Further reading

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