In celebration of African American heritage month in the United States, today’s post recognizes the many feats of Willa Beatrice Brown. Born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, Kentucky, Brown lived during a tumultuous era filled with prejudice against her race; yet, she overcame these barriers to become a leading figure in aviation history.
Initially, Brown decided to be a school teacher. She graduated from Indiana Teachers College in 1927 with a bachelor’s degree in teaching. By 1937 she graduated with a M.B.A. from Northwestern University. In the meantime Brown taught high school students and later worked as a social worker, but neither job satisfied her. She sought a different career avenue, especially one that had otherwise been restricted to African Americans. As a result, Brown decided to pursue flying lessons. Under the instruction of Cornelius R. Coffey she earned her license in 1938. Brown became the first female African American pilot licensed in the United States. By 1943, Brown would also become the first African American woman to possess a commercial pilot and mechanic’s license.
Meanwhile, Brown partnered with Coffey to create the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport in Chicago. The school trained black pilots and aviation mechanics, many of whom would go on to become part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. Another organization co-founded by Brown was the National Airmen’s Association of America. The group’s main objective involved getting African American aviation cadets accepted into the U.S. military. The group consistently lobbied for the integration of black pilots into the Army Air Corps as well as the federal Civil Pilot Training Program (CPTP). For those unfamiliar with the CPTP, the Civil Aeronautics Authority established a program in 1938 to provide a group of civilian pilots for use during national emergencies. More specifically with the
onset of WWII, this system was set up in preparation for the possibility of the US entering into war. The program proved successful as it produced the necessary pilots required for service. Brown and her colleagues promoted the inclusion of African Americans in the CPTP which proved successful when Congress passed the separate-but-equal clause. Black aviators now had the opportunity to fly and fight for their country. This was the first step towards integration of the races in U.S. military air squadrons. Brown would continue to lead the fight to fully integrate blacks into the U.S. Army Air Corps until 1948 when President Truman issued an
executive order for equal treatment of all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.
Willa Brown lead the way for the integration of African Americans. Not only was she an activist, Brown also partook in the new opportunities she helped to create. In addition to all her “firsts” she also served as the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol achieving the rank of lieutenant. After the war, Brown would go on to become a member of the FAA Women’s Advisory Board. Brown passed away in 1992, but her contributions to aviation will always be remembered.