Celebrating the Life of Willa Brown: American Aviator and Civil Rights Activist

This week, we honor the birthday of aviator and leader, Willa Brown. Brown’s accomplishments and legacy are nothing short of astounding. From being the first African American woman to hold her pilot’s license in the United States, to teaching flight through her very own, Coffrey School of Aeronautics. She was a trailblazer in the 1900s and paved the way for so many others.

Born on January 22, 1906, in Glasgow, Kentucky, Brown was raised in Indiana, where she eventually graduated from what is now known as Indiana State University, and first took a job as a teacher. She eventually found herself in Chicago, enrolling in Northwestern University, where she earned her master’s degree. Chicago is where her love and passion for flight first took off.

Her hobby soon transformed into a career path and became her primary profession. Brown was prepared to push boundaries and she succeeded in doing so. She started taking lessons at Harlem Field and classes at Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University. She earned her master mechanics certificate in 1935 and three years later, received her pilot’s license — officially becoming the first African American in the United States to do so.

Brown’s determination and drive helped encourage women and the African American community in Chicago to participate in aeronautics. She partnered with her former mentor and husband, Cornelius Coffrey, and founded the Coffrey School of Aeronautics. The school offered both academic and hands on experiences. It was the first Black-owned and operated private flight training program in the United States.

In 1940, Brown became a founding member of the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA), the first Black aviators’ group. The NAAA’s main objective was to increase the participation of African Americans in aviation and aeronautics, and to recruit African Americans for armed forces. In the beginning of WWII, there was a shortage of experienced pilots. A 1939 Time Magazine article quoted Willa and the NAAA telling the US to “train African American men to become pilots!” Willa’s advocacy for desegregation in the military eventually resulted in the acquisition of her school by the government funded CPTP, the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

The Coffrey School was regularly asked to provide African American trainees for the pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This program led to the creation of the famously known, Tuskegee Airmen.

Brown was a woman of many firsts. She became the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the first American woman to have both a mechanic’s and commercial pilot’s license, and in 1946, she became the first African American woman to run for congress. Despite her loss, she remained an active and influential voice in the community for civil rights.

Willa Brown’s accomplishments opened numerous outlets of opportunities for those of all genders and races, and continue to strongly influence the aviation industry in immeasurable ways.

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