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Willa Brown



When a young woman wearing white jodhpurs, jacket and boots, strode into the newsroom of the Chicago Defender in 1936, she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters suddenly went silent. The City Editor, at first, thought she was a model representing a new commercial product. Not hardly.

“I'm Willa Brown,” she said and announced that she was (what they called in those days) an `Aviatrix', and wanted some publicity for a Negro air show at Harlem Airport on Chicago's southwest side.

Born in Glasgow, Kentucky in 1906, Willa Beatrice Brown later moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where she graduated from high school and college.  By age 21, she was the youngest high school teacher in the Gary school system. But the lure for adventure and the greater usefulness of her talent led her to take up social work in Chicago. Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for people of her race she sought an unexplored field. She found it in aviation. In her owned community she was scorned for the apparent futility of a woman wasting time in aviation. The more orthodox people in Chicago thought it sinful, if not insane.

But Willa, undiscourageable, pursued her lessons with Cornelius Coffey, at the time one of two African-Americans holding civil service credentials in mechanical aviation. Coffey and Willa Brown married and began a cooperative business venture in Chicago.

The Coffey School of Aeronautics trained pilots and mechanics for the war emergency, and for post-war work in the field of aviation. Their pioneering work was responsible to a great degree for the creation of the Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) government service for men of color - and they held government contracts to train U.S. pilots, both white and black.

More than a half-century ago she was the only woman in America holding a mechanic's license, a commercial pilot's license, and serving as the president of a large aviation corporation.

Provided by Jim Thompson of African-American Heroes.

For pictures and more information on Willa Brown, go to the ALLSTAR Learning Laboratory's
Blacks in Aviation section.

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Updated: 12 March, 2004