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Willa Brown

First Minority Woman to Earn a Commercial Pilot’s License

Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell made significant contributions to both politics and the field of aviation during her lifetime. Her career began in 1926 as a “commerce” teacher at the Roosevelt High School, Gary, Indiana. She moved to Chicago after receiving tenure and there met Col. John C. Robinson and Cornelius R. Coffey, both pioneer pilots and mechanics. Under their tutelage Willa was able to follow in the steps of her mentor, Bessie Coleman, and later organize the annual memorial fly-over of Bessie Coleman’s grave.

In 1937 Willa earned her pilot’s license, making her the first African American woman to be licensed in the United States. Two years later she married Cornelius Coffey, who would become one of the Tuskegee Airmen. She was also a founding member of the National Airmen Association of America, the sole purpose of which was to lobby Congress for the racial integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In 1941, with her flying service and aviation credentials, the U.S. government named Willa as the federal coordinator of the Chicago unit of the Civil Air Patrol civilian pilot training program. She was ranked an officer in this first integrated unit. Her efforts were directly responsible for the creation of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, which led to the integration of the U.S. military services in 1948. She was instrumental in training more than 200 students who went on to become Tuskegee pilots.