In 1937, Willa Brown became the first African-American woman to earn an airplane pilot’s license in the United States. (Bessie Coleman, who had become the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1921, had to go to France to train for and obtain her license.) Brown, who was born in Kentucky in 1906, was also an aviation pioneer in several other key respects. She first worked as a high school teacher in Gary, Indiana, and then a social worker in Chicago, Illinois, before deciding to expand her horizons even further and pursue a career in flight.
In 1934, Brown began taking flying lessons at one of Chicago’s racially segregated airports. One of her flight instructors was Cornelius Coffey. In 1939 – two years after she earned her history-making private pilot’s license – Brown married Coffey. Both of them subsequently established the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics. The school, which was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, trained African-American pilots and aviation mechanics. It was the nation’s first flight school to be owned and operated by African-Americans.
Brown also strongly pushed for the integration of African-Americans into both the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an effort sponsored by the U.S. government to increase the number of civilian pilots for national emergencies, and the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1941, Brown was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol; this made her the first African-American officer to serve in this group. During World War II, a number of the men who had trained under Brown at the Coffey School became members of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen – African-American aviators who distinguished themselves by their skill and bravery in battle. It was also during the war that Brown became the first African-American woman to earn her commercial pilot’s license.
In the decades after the war, Brown continued to promote racial integration. She also served on the Women’s Advisory Board of the Federal Aviation Administration. Brown died in Chicago in 1992 at the age of 86.