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Following in the footsteps of famed aviator Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown (1906-1992) and Janet Harmon-Bragg (1907-1993) were instrumental in advancing the entrance of African-Americans into the aviation field. Brown was the first black woman to receive a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S. Janet Harmon Bragg was the first Black woman to receive a pilot’s license in the United States. Willa Brown obtained her pilot’s license in 1938. Born in Kentucky, she graduated from high school in Terra Haute, Indiana. Brown then attended Indiana State Teachers College. She worked as a teacher in Indiana before taking a job in Chicago as a social worker. During this time, she developed an interest in flying, earning her pilot’s license that same year. Brown continued with her education, earning an MBA from Northwestern University.
Brown used her passion and business acumen as co-founder of the Coffey School of Aeronautics. She launched the school with her husband, Cornelius Coffey, who was also a pilot. It was the first black-owned and operated private flight academy in the United States. The school received funding in 1939 to begin training pilots for the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Brown would become the first Black officer in the Civilian Air Patrol in 1941. She taught hundreds of people as an instructor, with many male students becoming part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen was a primarily Black military aviation unit that served during World War II. Brown was also a staunch advocate for racial integration within the United States military. She for congress in 1946 and was the first Black woman to do so. She did not win the election. Brown died in 1992 in Chicago at the age of 86.
Janet Harmon-Bragg was a contemporary of Willa Brown. She was the first black woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Bragg successfully passed on her first try, but the examiner refused to issue a license to a “colored girl.” Bragg was a founding member of the Challenger Aero Club in Chicago, Illinois. She also promoted the field of aviation within the Black community through a regular column she wrote for the Chicago Defender newspaper.
The youngest of seven children, Bragg was born in Georgia. She relocated to New York after graduating with a nursing degree from Spelman College. Her interest in flying was ignited after seeing a billboard that read, “Birds can fly. Why can’t you?” Bragg was the only woman in a class with 24 black men at Curtiss Wright Aeronautical School in Chicago. The segregated school was considered a “ground” school and did not offer flight training. She used her earnings as a nurse to purchase a plane for herself and then rented it out to other pilots as well.
At the time, black pilots were restricted from using white airports. Bragg and some of her classmates and aviation instructors formed the Challenger Aero Club and built an airfield in the all-black city of Robbins, Illinois. Bragg and her husband also established and operated nursing homes in the Chicago area until their retirement in 1972. She retired from flying in 1965. Bragg died in 1993 at the age of 86.
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