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One Determined Woman

Willa Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906, to a Native American mother and an African American father in Glasgow, Kentucky. She graduated from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, then attended Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University), earning a bachelor’s degree in education. Later she earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern University. Willa taught school in Gary, Indiana, for about six years before moving to Chicago. 

In 1934, Willa met John C. Robinson, who was part of the Challenger Air Pilots Association, an organization of African American Pilots. The aviation bug bit her hard. She felt like she had found her true path. Willa began studying at Chicago’s segregated Harlem Field, with flight instructor Cornelius Coffey, who was an expert in aviation mechanics. One of only a handful of women, Willa attended Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University, where she studied aircraft maintenance and earned her mechanic’s license. Willa earned a private pilot’s license and the following year, she earned a commercial license, becoming one of the first women of color to do so.

Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey, and Enoch P. Waters founded The National Negro Airmen Association of America, later renamed the National Airmen’s Association of America. Waters described Willa as, “a shapely young brown skin woman, wearing white jodhpurs, a formfitting white jacket, and white boots, strode into our office, in 1936, and made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters went silent... Unlike most visitors, [she] wasn’t at all bewildered. She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her husky voice as she announced, not asked, that she wanted to see me.” The primary goal of the Association was to attract more interest in aviation and to develop a better understanding of the entire field of aeronautics while increasing the participation of African-Americans in both areas. 

Willa was the national secretary and president of the Chicago branch of the organization and an avid activist for racial equality. She loved flying to colleges and community-based organizations, and often spoke on the radio, urging African-Americans to fly. Coffey and Willa established the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago at the Harlem Airport to train black pilots and teach aviation mechanics. The Army Air Corps and the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) were both segregated. Willa lobbied for integration. 

The Army War College deemed African Americans unfit to fly back in 1925. (On what basis exactly, I could not determine). Willa worked tirelessly to dispel this ridiculous idea. It was the age-old and toxic racial prejudice. The push was on to get the federal government to award CPTP contracts to train African American pilots. In 1940, the organization appointed Willa to coordinate all Chicago units of CPTP. 

The U.S. Army Air Corps chose the Coffey School as a feeder school to provide Black students for its pilot training program. Approximately 200 students from the school joined the Tuskegee Airmen. By 1942, Willa had earned the rank of lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol Squadron 613-6. She was one of the first, maybe even the first, African-American officers in the Civil Air Patrol. They appointed Willa as the war training service coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Authority after the Coffee School closed in 1945. 

In 1946 Willa ran on the Republican ticket in the primary for Illinois 1st congressional district. Her focus was on improving both the lives and opportunities of African-Americans. She was the first African American woman to run in a congressional primary, although there was precious little ever written about her. William King defeated her. Four years later, Willa ran for the same seat and Archibald Carey defeated her. Willa Brown was tenacious! (In 1969, Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York became the first African American congressional representative).

Between 1962 and 1971, Willa taught high school courses in business and aeronautics. Later, she served as a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1972 to 1975. She was the first Black woman to serve on that committee. Willa was a lifelong advocate for gender and racial equality in aviation and the military. 

Willa married three times. The first marriage in 1929 was to Wilbur J. Hardaway, a firefighter. They divorced in 1931. Her second marriage was in 1947, to Cornelius Coffey, her business partner. That marriage did not last long either. It seems they were better suited as business partners than marriage partners. In 1955, she married Reverend J. H. Chappell, pastor of the West Side Community Church. They remained married until 1991, when she became a widow. Willa Brown had no children.

From They Roared, by Margaret M Kirk


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