Skyward Dreams: The Willa Brown Story

Black and white photograph of Willa Brown, a pioneering African American female aviator, wearing a military-style cap with wings insignia and a uniform with captain bars. She is seated, looking slightly to the side with a confident smile, and has a Coca-Cola bottle and a glass on the table in front of her.
Willa Brown, circa 1940s

Willa Brown biography

Willa Brown loved flying. She admired aviators.

But black pilots were rare in her day. In 1939, only a couple of years after Willa earned her license, just 130 out of about 62,000 certified pilots were black. These statistics, nor the general landscape of segregation and racism in the U.S., did anything to deter Willa. She had her dreams. And those dreams she would live.

Willa was born in Glasgow, Kentucky, in 1906. She was the youngest of seven children. Her parents, who believed in the importance of a good education, moved the family to Terra Haute, Indiana, because of better school opportunities for their kids. Willa went to school and thrived. After high school, she enrolled at Indiana State Teachers College and, post-graduation, became a teacher.

Having more desire for learning, Willa continued her education with a Master’s in Business Administration at Northwestern University. While studying there, she joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association, where she learned to fly. After earning her Master Mechanic Certificate, Willa started teaching others to fly.

But she wanted to do more. Wanting to help pave the way for other aspiring black aviators, Willa co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics at the Harlem Airport in Chicago in 1939, the first private flight training academy in the U.S. owned and operated by black Americans. Along with training black Americans in aviation, more than 200 of the organization’s graduates would join the famed Tuskegee Airmen, fighting for the U.S. Air Force during World War II. One of the students would say about Willa,

“Willa was persistent and dedicated. She was the foundation, framework, and builder of people’s souls. She did it not for herself, but for all of us.”

In the 1940s, Willa’s penchant for breaking boundaries expanded beyond aviation. She made history in 1946 by becoming the first black woman to run for Congress. Representing the Republican Party in Illinois, her campaign was groundbreaking and garnered attention. Though she did not secure the seat, her campaign addressed crucial issues like civil rights, housing, and education, shining a spotlight on the pressing needs of her community.

For many of her latter years, Willa continued to teach different levels of school and worked in advisory roles with various government organizations. She passed away on July 18, 1992, at the age of 86.

Notes

  • Please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation if you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Willa Brown. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Thank you for supporting us.

Sources

  • Locke, Theresa A. “Willa Brown-Chappell Mother of Black Aviation.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 1, 1987, pp. 5–6. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44254446. Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.
  • “‘Willa Beatrice Brown, a 31-year-old Negro American, serves her country by training pilots for the U.S. Army Air Forces. She is the first Negro woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.’” National Archives Catalog, NAID: 535717, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/535717