The Relentless Pilot Who Took Black Aviation To New Heights

willa brown standing in between two planes
Abeni Jones
July 21, 2022

In the 1930s, the Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps made it clear he thought Black people didn’t have what it took to be pilots: “there [are] no black units in the Army Air Corps and none [are] contemplated.”  

But one Black woman wouldn’t take no for an answer and she knew Black people could fly.

Willa Brown, passionate about aviation, met and later married Cornelius Coffey, who was accepted – then rejected – from the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago because of race. 

But they knew Black aviators had power and potential and had to find a way to expand opportunities.

So they created their own school! Together they formed the Coffey School of Aeronautics, one of the first Black-owned flight schools in the country

Brown was a natural publicity whiz and got great coverage in the Chicago Defender. Soon they had thousands of students.

Brown relentlessly petitioned the government to admit Black pilots into the Air Force and was wildly successful – over 200 of her students eventually became Tuskegee Airmen!

Her passion for aviation, and especially her relentless determination to achieve her dream and support opportunities for our people despite racist and sexist barriers in her path, transformed aviation and empowered thousands of Black people!

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