Willa B. Brown, aviator pioneer and activist

Herb Boyd | 11/29/2018, 11:33 a.m.

For several months now I’ve been in contact with the Robinson Family Aerospace mission, most notably their “send-your-name-to-Mars” project, which is still on my agenda to fulfill. More to the point of this column is the information of aerospace history that I’ve derived from the Robinson family and a recent email from them included a short bio of Willa Beatrice Brown, an aviatrix who deserves a profile much in the manner of one completed here some time ago on Bessie Coleman.

Brown, born Jan. 22, 1906, in Glasgow, Ky., was the daughter of the Rev. Eric B. Brown and Hallie Mae Carpenter Brown. After graduating from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, Ind., Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in 1927. Ten years later, she earned her master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University.

She taught briefly at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Ind., before moving to Chicago to become a social worker. Her variety of jobs included work as a secretary to Calar Paul Page, director of the Chicago Relief Administration, and as a social services worker for the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare. She was also a clerk for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization and for the United States Post Office, and she was secretary to the renowned scholar and educator Horace Cayton.

Despite the range of employment, Brown retained her dream of becoming a pilot, and rather than helping to mend broken spirits as a social worker, she decided to take to the air and learn how to fly a plane. With John Robinson and Cornelius Coffey as her tutors, Brown began flight training in 1934. A year later, while studying at the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University, she earned a master mechanic certificate.

In 1937, Brown became the first African-American woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S. (Coleman earned her pilot’s license in France in 1921). Two years later, she married Coffey and together they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, becoming the first Black-owned and operated private flight training academy in the U.S.

The school was so successful that in 1939 it was awarded a contract by the federal government to train Americans to fly in case of a national emergency. Brown acquired additional prestige as a co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America. At the same time, she became a member of the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association as well as the Chicago Girls Flight Club. By 1940, she had purchased her own airplane.

But there were still a number of obstacles to overcome, and in a moment of desperation in 1941 she wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “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.”

Writing a letter to the first lady was just one example of her drive to succeed. Five years earlier she boldly walked into the office of the Chicago Defender, demanding to speak to the editor. An editor there recalls her visit: “When Willa Brown, a young woman wearing white jodhpurs, jacket and boots, strode into our newsroom in 1936, she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters, which had been clacking noisily, suddenly went silent. Unlike most first-time visitors, she wasn’t at all bewildered. She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her voice. ‘I want to speak to Mr. Enoch Waters,’ she said. I wasn’t unhappy at the prospect of discovering who she was and what she wanted. I had an idea she was a model representing a new commercial product that she had been hired to promote. ‘I’m Willa Brown,’ she informed me, seating herself without being asked. In a businesslike manner she explained that she was an aviatrix and wanted some publicity for a Negro air show at Harlem Airport on the city’s southwest side.”