Willa Beatrice Brown was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot license (1938) and a commercial license (1939) in the United States. She was one of a small group of pre-World War II black women aviators.
She was also an aviator, lobbyist, teacher and civil rights activist. Brown became the first African-American woman to run for the United States Congress, the first African-American officer in the US Civil Air Patrol, and the first woman in the United States to have a pilot’s license and a mechanic’s license.
Aviation however wasn’t always part of Brown’s life. She briefly taught at the Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana before moving to Chicago, Illinois to become a social worker. Landing in Chicago, she decided to learn how to fly. In 1934, Brown began her flight instruction under the direction of John Robinson and Cornelius Coffey. She also studied at the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University and in 1935 earned a Masters Mechanic Certificate.
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In 1937, Brown became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Two years later she married her former flight instructor, Cornelius Coffey, and they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first black-owned and operated private flight training academy in the U.S.
The fortune and esteem of the Coffey school was bolstered in 1939 when the Federal Government awarded them a contract to train Americans to fly airplanes in case of a national emergency. Later that year, Brown became a co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America. She also joined the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, the Chicago Girls Flight Club while she purchased her own airplane all between 1939 and 1940.
Even the men who came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen had trained under Brown. She was also the director/coordinator of two Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) programs: one at the Harlem Airport and the other at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago.
Brown achieved another distinction in 1941 when she became the first African-American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP); she was commissioned a Lieutenant. The U.S. government also named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit.
In 1946, Brown became the first African American woman to run for Congress on the Republican ticket although she lost to the Democrat incumbent, William Levi Dawson. She run two other times in 1948 and 1950 as well.
After the Coffey School closed in 1945, Brown remained politically and socially active in Chicago. She organized flight schools for children and taught in the Chicago Public School System until 1971, when she retired at the age of 65.
She supported various causes throughout her political career, including the racial and gender integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
In 1955, Brown, now 49, married Rev. J.H. Chappell, the minister of the West Side Community Church in Chicago. In 1972, in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist, Ms. Brown-Chappell was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Women’s Advisory Board. Willa B. Brown-Chappell died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86 in Chicago.
Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky on January 22, 1906 to Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown. She graduated from Wiley High School in Terra Haute, Indiana earning her Bachelor’s degree from the Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in 1927. Ten years later, she earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Northwestern University.