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Chocolate phoenix: The story of pioneering aviator Willa Brown

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Surrounded by prestigious awards and memorabilia, dozens of families gathered at Avondale Meadows YMCA on the city’s eastside on Feb. 22 to learn about one of history’s trailblazers in the aviation industry: Willa B. Brown. Her journey to becoming a pilot and advocate for African Americans and women in aviation is headlined by perseverance and a relentless pursuit of social justice.

Brown, an integral figure in the history of aviation, is often celebrated for her groundbreaking accomplishments and enduring impact on the industry. Born in 1906 in Glasgow, Kentucky, Brown and her family relocated four hours north to Terre Haute, Indiana where her sky-soaring story truly begins.

A portrait of Willa Brown in a plane. (Photo/National World War II Museum)

Raised in a time of racial segregation and limited opportunities for African Americans, Willa Brown faced countless barriers on her path to pursuing her dreams. Despite the prevailing societal challenges, Brown exhibited an early fascination with aviation, inspired by the daring stunts of pioneering aviators such as Bessie Coleman. She was also extremely fond of educating others. Brown earned a degree in Business from Indiana State Teachers College, now known as Indiana State University (ISU), in 1927.

The senior manager of educational programs & diversity partnerships at Republic Airways, Darrell Morton, led the event.

“It is important for us to tell this story and keep telling this story,” Morton said regarding preserving African American aviation history. “The kids don’t know what they don’t know.”

Willa Brown between two fighter planes. (Photo/National World War II Museum)

Brown’s journey into aviation did not directly begin after her time at Indiana State, as she would become a teacher, empowering many students of Gary, Indiana. Many say Brown loved educating others just as much as conquering the skies.

Brown’s time in Terre Haute, Indiana, left an indelible mark on the city. During her tenure as a resident of Terre Haute, she actively engaged with the community, advocating for education and opportunities for African American youth. Her presence and influence in the city served as a source of inspiration for many, and she remains an important figure in Terre Haute’s history.

Following working during the height of The Great Drepression, Brown relocated to Chicago. It was here that the young aviator joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association (CAPA), aligning herself with the African American pilots in Chicago. They built an airport in Robbins, Illinois, which many believe is the first African American-owned airport in the country.

Following a storm that decimated the planes and hangar, the group moved to Harlem Airport only a few miles, where the owner insisted on segregation. Here, Brown became a flight student while also meeting her future husband Cornelius Coffey in the process.

Brown enrolled in the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in 1935, earning her pilot’s license three years later.

Brown’s newfound credentials led her to becoming the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in the United States. Her groundbreaking achievement opened doors for future generations of African American aviators and challenged entrenched racial prejudices within the aviation industry.

Jennifer Mixon, the great-niece of Willa Brown, spoke about the importance of preserving the family legacy.

“In my mother’s lifetime, she wanted Willa to receive the recognition she deserved for all of her hard work and the great things she was a part of,” Mixon said following the documentary screening. “It is a blessing to see what my mother and aunt wanted to happen is really coming to fruition.”

In 1939, Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA), an organization dedicated to promoting the advancement of African American aviators. Following its formation, Brown championed the NAAA with public addresses at colleges and universities across the country. She also wrote to African American publications informing them of the groundbreaking feat. Through her tireless advocacy and leadership, the pioneering aviator continued to increase access to opportunities for many pilots of color.

Brown played a pivotal role in pressuring the U.S. military to accept African American pilots into its ranks during World War II. Her efforts contributed to the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Black squadron that distinguished itself with valor and skill during the war.

The following year, Brown, alongside her husband and pilot Cornelius Coffey, opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics, located in Chicago. The school was the first flight school owned by African Americans in the nation’s history.

A photo of Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown. (Photo/National World War II Museum)

Brown’s contributions to aviation extended beyond her advocacy work. She became the first African American woman to run for the United States Congress in 1946, campaigning for civil rights and equality. Although she was not successful in her bid for office, her candidacy functioned as a testament to her tireless commitment to breaking down racial barriers and fighting for social justice.

Today, Indiana State University, Brown’s alma mater, alongside Republic Airways offers a $50,000 scholarship for students looking to champion diversity in the skies.

In recognition of her contributions, Willa Beatrice Brown was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2022, cementing her place as a pioneering figure in the annals of aviation history. Despite this, Brown is not in the Indiana Aviation Hall of Fame.

“I am working tirelessly to get her in the Hall of Fame,” Morton said on submitting a nomination on three separate occasions. “She deserves to be in there, and I won’t stop until she is in the Indiana Aviation Hall of Fame.”

Contact multimedia staff writer Noral Parham III at 317-762-7846 or via email at noralp@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @3Noral. For more news courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.

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