Following in the footsteps of Bessie Coleman, who, in 1921, became the first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot’s license from France’s Federation Aeronautique Internationale, Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn both a pilot’s license (1938) and a commercial license (1939) — no trip to France required.
A former schoolteacher and social worker with a degree in education from Indiana State University, Brown went on to establish the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Chicago’s Harlem Airport alongside her flight instructor-turned-husband, Cornelius Coffey. This institution would later become the first government-approved aviation training school for African Americans. The duo, along with newspaper editor Enoch P. Walters, formed the National Airmen Association of America, an organization with the aim of integrating black pilots into the U.S. military.
Brown’s tireless fight for racial equality on the ground and in the sky eventually proved successful when the Coffey School was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as one of several black aviation programs allowed to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) to its pupils. In 1942, Brown became the first black female member of the Civil Air Patrol. Later, the Coffey School, with the U.S. Army's stamp of approval, began to send pupils to the pilot training program at the Tuskegee Army Air Field (Sharpe Field) in Macon County, Ala.