Willa Brown: Teacher, Civil Rights Activist, Lobbyist, and Aviation Pioneer

Willa Brown earned her pilot's license in 1938. (Photo: The History Makers: http://ow.ly/XN6j307y5xh)

Willa Brown earned her pilot's license in 1938. (Photo: The History Makers: http://ow.ly/XN6j307y5xh)

Willa Brown was born in 1906 in Kentucky, the daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown. She graduated from high school in Terra Haute, Indiana and attended college, earning a bachelors in Education from the Indiana State Teachers College in 1927.

After briefly teaching at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to become a social worker.  It was there that she decided to pursue her interest in aviation. 

In 1934 Brown began to train under Cornelius Coffey, a self-taught African-American pilot and founder of the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago. During this time she once again attended school and by 1937 she had earned a Masters Mechanic Certificate from the Aeronautical University of Chicago, MBA from Northwestern University and Civil Aeronautics Administration ground school instructor's rating.

Brown earned her private pilot's license in 1938, the first African American woman to achieve that feat--and with a score of 96 of 100 on the exam. She and Coffey later married and formed the National Airmen's Association of America, dedicated to the integration of the Army Air Corps. 

In an interview with The History Makers, Walter Hill, Jr. recounted Willa Brown's petition to host an aviation training school for black men at the beginning of the war:

“She petitioned the War Department when it made the decision to train black men to become pilots…They went out to various institutions to find out who would be willing to host a training school. Willa Brown’s application to the War Department was that she could do that in her flying school ‘cause she had been training black pilots since the late 1930s. She was very prominent in the field. She lost out of course; Tuskegee was one of the institutions that won, and that’s why they became the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Though Brown's school was not selected, she continued supplying trainees to the Tuskegee Airmen training program. By the time the US entered the war, the Coffey school had trained hundreds of men and women. In 1941, Brown was commissioned the first African-American officer in the Civil Air Patrol and named federal coordinator of the Civil Air Patrol unit in Chicago.

After the war, Brown would become involved in politics and ran for Congress. Though she lost, it was groundbreaking for African-American women who were later inspired by her to run for office. She remained heavily involved with issues important to her, especially racial and gender integration of the Army Air Corps.

Willa Brown-Chappell (she remarried in 1955), retired from teaching school in 1971 and a year later, she was appointed to the FAA Women's Advisory Board, in recognition of her contributions to aviation. She would remain active in her work and causes important to her for another twenty years until her death from a stroke at the age of 86.