Pioneers of the Sky: The Men & Women Who Paved the Way
By New School journalist, Aishamanne Williams
During a time when black people were made to keep their heads down and their ambitions low, black people making their way into the sky is no negligible feat. Many of us know about legendary pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhartt, but this Black History Month is a good time to honor African-Americans like Willa Brown, Bessie Coleman, and the Tuskegee Airmen, who had to overcome significant challenges created by racism in order to become pilots.
Willa Brown, Bessie Coleman, & The Tuskegee Airmen of WWII
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American—and first Native American woman—pilot. Known as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bessie,” she had a goal to inspire women and African-Americans to follow their dreams. At age 23, she followed hers by applying to flight schools in France since American flight schools weren’t ready to accept women or African-Americans. She received her international pilot’s license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She toured the country giving flight lessons and doing tricks, like her famous “8” shape in the sky. In 1925, Coleman came to her hometown in Texas to perform and was told that there would be two separate entrances for African Americans and white people to get into the stadium. She refused to perform unless there was only one gate for everyone to use, and the managers of the event conceded to this, but seats inside the stadium were still segregated. Coleman was known for fighting for her beliefs throughout her career as a pilot.
Willa Brown is a lesser known pilot, who was the first African American woman to earn a pilot license (1938) and a commercial license (1939). She was also the first African American woman to become an officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol. Brown, like Coleman, was black and Native American. In 1935 she earned her Master Mechanic Certificate and began giving flight and ground school instruction. In 1936, she made a pitch to the Chicago Defender newspaper for coverage of an African-American air show to be held at Harlem Field. The paper advertised the event, drawing nearly 300 attendees and showcasing talented black pilots in Chicago. Brown’s husband, Cornelis Coffey, managed the Coffey School of Aeronautics. The Coffey School was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as one of several black schools to offer the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The school’s success led to the admission of black people into the Army Air Forces, which is what led to the Tuskegee Experiment.
Willa Brown 1943
In 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he would expand the civilian pilot training program in the United States, the country and its armed forces were still very much racially segregated. Both the military and the armed forces held beliefs that African-Americans were not capable of operating sophisticated aircraft. Historic black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier joined the NAACP in demanding that African-Americans be included in the civilian pilot training programs. Finally, the Roosevelt administration responded by announcing that the Army Air Corps would begin training black pilots.
Tuskegee Airmen WWII
These pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. The program trained 1,000 pilots and 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, and mechanics. The group that came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen consisted of the pilots who fought in WWII, forming the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. These were African-American and Afro-Caribbean pilots whose flying during the war destroyed stereotypes about black people being incapable of operating aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen only lost 25 bombers to enemy aircraft, as opposed to other escort groups of the 15th Air Force who lost an average of 46 members. The Tuskegee pilots, who earned the nickname “Red Tails” because the tails of their planes were painted red for identification purposes, damaged 36 German planes in the air, 237 on the ground, and almost 1,000 rail cars, transport vehicles and a German destroyer. These airmen were integral to America’s success over Germany in the war, and the work that Black people did to fight for their right to fly ended up being to this country’s benefit.
The segregation of the 1930s almost made it impossible for African-Americans to become pilots, and once they were able to, they became more successful in war than any other fighter groups. Today the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is well upheld. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airman received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. Cockpit USA also carries a jacket honoring the Tuskegee airmen, the first company to ever produce a jacket of this kind in the 80s. The jacket was commissioned by an original pilot belonging to the Long Island, NY chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. In 2012, at the American Airpower Museum for the premiere of the movie Red Tails, original Tuskegee Airman Julius Freeman wore Cockpit USA's A-2 jacket. The highly acclaimed blockbuster was one of the only films to be screened privately before its release to former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama at the White House. A documentary about them is also coming to the History Channel this Wednesday, February 10th.
Richard Hall, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, died on February 2nd at 97 years old. His fellow airmen, Ted Lumpkin, Jr., died in January of the coronavirus at 100 years old. Bessie Coleman died in an unfortunate plane crash in 1926 and Willa Brown died in 1992, at ages 34 and 86 respectively. After lives of dominating the skies, they now lie resting in the earth at the same cemetery, Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery. The legacies of black pilots who overcame mighty obstacles and made historic strides in the air for the sake of inspiring generations after them will never be forgotten.
"A special thank you Aishamanne Williams may your diligence bring you great success!" - Rudy Gonzales and the Cockpit USA Family