Jan. 22, 1906
Pioneer aviator and civil rights activist Willa Beatrice Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky.
While working in Chicago, she learned how to fly and became the first Black female to earn a commercial pilot’s license. A journalist said that when she entered the newsroom, “she made such a stunning appearance that all the typewriters suddenly went silent. … She had a confident bearing and there was an undercurrent of determination in her husky voice as she announced, not asked, that she wanted to see me.”
In 1939, she married her former flight instructor, Cornelius Coffey, and they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first Black-owned private flight training academy in the U.S.
She succeeded in convincing the U.S. Army Air Corps to let them train Black pilots. Hundreds of men and women trained under them, including nearly 200 future Tuskegee Airmen.
In 1942, she became the first Black officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. After World War II ended, she became the first Black woman to run for Congress. Although she lost, she remained politically active and worked in Chicago, teaching business and aeronautics.
After she retired, she served on an advisory board to the Federal Aviation Administration. She died in 1992. A historical marker in her hometown now recognizes her as the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license in the U.S., and Women in Aviation International named her one of the 100 most influential women in aviation and space.
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