Bringing Willa Brown to the spotlight she deserves in the National Aviation Hall of Fame
Darrell Morton Jr. joined Republic Airways in September of 2021 as Senior Manager of Educational Programs and Diversity Partnerships, championing our airline’s efforts in making aviation careers more attainable for all through relationships with schools and organizations locally and across the country. What he didn’t quite expect to happen, especially so soon in this role, is to connect the future with aviation’s rich past through his own roots
A graduate of Indiana State University, Darrell was surprised to learn that when reflecting on and researching the great trailblazers of aviation, he had never heard the name of a fellow Indiana State graduate by the name of Willa Brown. Willa, the first American woman to have a mechanic’s and commercial pilot’s licenses, had seemingly got lost in history despite her grand accomplishments. Darrell helped bring her contributions to the forefront.
“Now is the time to change history to honor history.” – Darrell Morton
by: Darrell Morton
I remember watching a video interview of First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith, an Indiana State University alum, featured on one of the ISU media channels. At the time, Smith, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, was in his early 90s and talked about the times he remembers from his military days. A 477th Composite Group member of the Tuskegee Airmen, he served as a flight instructor and flew service aircraft before becoming a bombardier due to his size.
When pressed on how he got his start in aviation, Smith smiled and said, “A little woman from Terre Haute who attended Indiana State a few years before I did piqued my interest.” The student reporter asked if he could have the woman’s name. Smith smiled and replied, “Willa Brown was her name, Willa Brown.”
After a couple more questions, the interview was about to wrap when Smith asked the student reporter, “Do you know anything about Willa?” “No sir, I don’t,” the young reporter said. “Lost but not forgotten, I guess,” Smith uttered, and the interview was over. That phrase echoed in my head for weeks until I researched and discovered the greatness of Willa B. Brown.
When I thought about trailblazing women in aviation, Bessie Coleman was one of the first names that came to mind. In 1921 she traveled from Chicago to France to learn to fly because no flight school in the United States would allow African American women to enroll. Bessie Coleman’s courage and talent as a stunt pilot cemented her legacy. She became the first African American woman and the first Native American to earn a pilot’s and international aviation license. Her story inspired women worldwide who had dreams of becoming aviators, including Willa Brown, a young student at Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University).
After graduating in 1927 with a degree in business, Willa taught at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, before moving to Chicago. She became a social worker and eventually earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern University, but Willa had her sights set on the blue skies. She started taking flying lessons at Harlem Field, a segregated airport on Chicago’s southside. Her instructors were John C. Robinson and Cornelius R. Coffey, two giants in the history of African American aviation and founders of the Challenger Aero Club. Willa also took classes at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University, which Robinson and Coffey had integrated a few years earlier by threatening to sue the school.
In 1938, Willa became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. She and Coffey became a couple and eventually were married. Together, they founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, becoming the country’s first African American owners and operators of a private flight training school.
The Challenger Aero Club, with Willa as a key decision-maker, continued to participate in air shows and college tours to promote interest in aviation. She also organized annual flyovers and flower drops in Chicago at the gravesite of Bessie Coleman, who had tragically died in a plane crash.
To elevate the club’s profile, Willa was instrumental in its rebranding as it became the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA). The association’s primary focus was to increase African American participation in aviation and aeronautics and bring African Americans into the armed forces. Serving as the national secretary and president of the Chicago branch, Willa lobbied the government and advocated for the integration of African American pilots into the segregated Army Air Corps.
With the real possibility of the United States entering World War II, the country’s severe shortage of experienced pilots was a significant issue. The solution was the establishment of the Civilian Pilot Training Program to provide the country with enough experienced aviators to improve military readiness. An act signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, African Americans were allowed to be a part of the training but only on a “separate but equal” basis.
The Coffey School was not allowed to train pilots for the Army. However, it was selected to provide African American trainees for the pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Willa was solely responsible for training over 200 future pilots and instructors. Several would become members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
When the government created the Civil Air Patrol to support and aid the war efforts in 1941, Willa joined the Chicago Squadron. She became the first African American officer after being commissioned as a lieutenant. Shortly after, she earned her mechanic license, making her the first American woman to have mechanic and commercial pilot licenses.
After the war ended, Willa and Coffey closed their flight school. Willa continued to be a trailblazer when in 1946 she became the first African American woman to run for Congress. Willa lost to the Democratic incumbent but continued to be a bright light in the struggle for civil rights.
It seems impossible for a person who accomplished so much to get lost in history. How can it be that I never heard her name during my years as an undergraduate student at ISU? How can it be that the city of Terre Haute or the state of Indiana has never acknowledged her achievements? Now is the time to change history to honor history.
Willa will officially join the National Aviation Hall of Fame as a member of its 2022 class this coming Fall. A nomination I submitted, which the Governor’s office endorsed, is awaiting approval to include her in the Indiana Aviation Hall of Fame. Terre Haute Regional Airport officials approved a display to honor her and educate visitors in the airport’s terminal. The unveiling will coincide with Women’s History Month this March.
Lastly, The Willa B. Brown Flight Academy at Indiana State University will be the next push by alumni and students. Collectively we will reintroduce Willa, where her accomplishments and achievements will never again be lost or forgotten.