Willa Beatrice Brown's career in aviation was highlighted with many firsts. Yet her story is not as well-known as others. At a time when a fraction of pilots were women, to be a Black female aviator was even more of an accomplishment. Willa was born in 1906 to a Native American mother and African American father. Her family left Kentucky for Indiana when she was a young child. She thrived in school. She earned her Bachelors in Business Administration at Indiana State Teacher's College and soon began working as a teacher in Gary, Indiana. Instructing others would be a major part of her contributions to history.
Willa didn't stay in Gary, Indiana for long. She moved to Chigaco where she was employed as a social worker. She felt her talents were underutilized and sought more adventure. Inspired by the life of Bessie Coleman the first African American and Native American to receive an international pilot license, Willa pursued aviation training. She would later participate in the memorial flight for Bessie Coleman gaining praise and admiration for her skills and bravado in the air and in life.
In 1934 she began flight lessons with John Robinson and Cornelius Coffey at Harlem Field (a segregated facility) in Chigaco. In 1935 she received a Master Mechanic's Certificate from the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University. Willa joined one of the first black pilot organizations, the Challenger Air Pilots Association. She was also a member of the Chicago Girls Flight Club. In 1937 she earned her MBA from Northwestern University. By 1939, Willa was the first woman to have a private pilot's license and a commercial pilot license in the United States.
Brown later married Cornelius Coffey. They established the first African American privately owned and operated flight training academy where she held the title of director. She was a founding member of the NAAA (National Airmen's Association of America). The goal of the organization was to advocate for African Americans in aeronautics and the military. As World War II loomed, seasoned pilots were in high demand. A Time magazine article featuring Willa and the Coffey School influenced the inclusion of African Americans programs to boost the numbers. Soon the Coffey School worked with the Civilian Pilot Training Program (part of the Army Air Corps) to train African American pilots.
Hundreds of male and female pilots were trained under Willa. Many of them became Tuskegee Airmen and instructors. Her work and dedication eventually helped integrate the Air Force. Willa was also the first African American officer (male or female) in the Civil Air Patrol of the United States Air Corps with a ranking of Lieutenant. She went on to earn the title of Federal Coordinator of the Chicago unit of CAP. It's understandable why she was known as, "Aviatrix, Mother of Pilots".
In 1946, Willa Brown was the first Black woman to run for Congress. She did not win that seat or the following two she ran for. Nonetheless, she continued to advocate for racial and gender inclusion just as she'd done in previous years. She went on to educate students in business and aeronautics until she retired. From 1972 to 1975 Willa was the first black woman to serve on the Women's Advisory Committee of the Federal Aviation Administration. Willa passed away in July 1992. In 2002 she was on the list of 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and Aerospace by Women in Aviation. She was posthumously inducted into the 2003 Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.
Willa Brown's tenacity, determination, and grit are hallmarks of this unsung hero who defied the odds and helped other African American men and women to do the same.