Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell




Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell


When Willa Brown, a young woman wearing jodspurs, jacket and boots, strode into our news room 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 a undercurrent of determination in her voice. 

`I want to speak to Mr. Enoch Waters,' she said…. I'm Willa Brown, 'she informed me, seating herself without being asked." - Enoch Waters, City Editor, Chicago Defender. Like Bessie Coleman years before her, Willa Beatrice Brown exuded a determination to become a top-f1ight aviator and not let racial barriers stand in her way.

She was born on ,January l906 to Rev. and Mrs. Eric B. Brown in Glasgow, Kentucky, and reared in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was educated in Indiana and Illinois, receiving her BA (1927) from She then attended and graduated from Indiana State Teachers College, now known as Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana and MBA (1937) from Northwestern University.

Willa Brown pursued her interest in aviation through the help of Chicago Defender Publisher/Editor Robert Abbott, who had helped Bessie Coleman over a decade earlier. Brown enrolled in the Aeronautical University in Chicago, earning a Master Mechanic certificate in 1935.


She studied with Cornelius Coffey, a certified flight instructor and an expert aviation and engine mechanic, and earned her private pilot's license on June 22, 1938, passing her exam with a near-perfect score of 96 percent. Brown later married Coffey, and together they established the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where they trained Black pilots throughout the Depression at the Harlem Airport in Chicago, owning several small planes. An activist for racial equality, she exercised her position as president of the Chicago branch of the National Airmen's Association of America to petition the LT.S. government to integrate African Americans into the LT.S. Army Air Corps, and to include African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a government funded aviation training program designed to prepare a reserve supply of civilian pilots who could be called upon in the event of an national emergency.

Brown's effort met fruition when, in 1939, legislation based on the separate-but-equal policy was adopted by Congress, authorizing African- Americans to be admitted into the civilian flight training program. Brown was awarded contracts to train African American pilots at the Coffey School of Aeronautics in a non-college unit, although the majority of the government contracts were awarded to six Black colleges, including Howard University, Hampton Institute, North Carolina A&T, Delaware State College, West Virginia State College and then Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University). In addition to training some of the most celebrated African American pilots of World War II under the civilian program, together Brown and Coffey paved the way for integration of the aviation industry as they trained both Black and White American pilots.


Time magazine noted the award of her contract in the September 25, 1939 edition with these words: "One civilian flier who was highly pleased by C.A.A.'s (Civil Aeronautics Authority) announcement was a cream and coffee-skinned Negress of 29. There is small chance that Willa Beatrice Brown will ever fly for the Army or Navy, but as Secretary of the National (Negro) Airmen's Association and one of the few Negro aviatrixes holding a limited commercial license, she has labored mightily to whip up interest in flying among Negroes, get them a share in C.A.A.'s training program."

Brown was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, becoming the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol. She was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration's Women's Advisory Board, and by 1943 Brown was the only woman in the United States to concurrently hold a mechanic's and a commercial pilot's license, and the presidency of a large aviation corporation, forming, along with another Black female avia trix, Janet Waterford and others, the National Airmen's Association of America in 1939. Brown, later in her life, became the first :African American woman to run for Congress ( 1946 as a Republican). Although unsuccessful she tried twice again in 1948 and 1950. She also attempted in the late 1940s, to establish a Chicago- area airport owned and operated by Blacks and made its creation part of her political platform. She taught aeronautics at Westinghouse High School until the 1970s. Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell died in July 1992.

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