Cornelius Robinson Coffey was born in Newport, Arkansas on September 6, 1903. In 1916, when he was 13, Coffey’s first airplane ride sparked his interest in aviation. Nine years later, in 1925, Coffey left Arkansas for Chicago, Illinois, to study auto mechanics. Soon after he arrived, Coffey and another African American, John C. Robinson, founded the Challenger’s Air Pilot’s Association to support their attempts to enroll in aviation programs in the Chicago area.
In 1939, Coffey, along with Willa Brown, the first black member of the Civil Air Patrol, and Enoch P. Waters formed the National Airmen’s Association of America. The main goal of this club was to send black aviators to the military and to expose African Americans and other people of color to aviation. This goal was later partly realized when the Tuskegee Airmen unit was formed by the U.S. Army in July 1941. Coffey, however, was opposed to the Tuskegee program because the black pilots were relegated to a racially segregated unit.
Willa Beatrice Brown, was born in 1906 in Kentucky, the daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown. She graduated from high school in Terra Haute, Indiana and attended college, earning a bachelors in Education from the Indiana State Teachers College in 1927.
Brown earned her private pilot’s license in 1938, the first African American woman to achieve that feat–and with a score of 96 of 100 on the exam. Brown became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Two years later she married her former flight instructor, Cornelius Coffey, and they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first black-owned and operated private flight training academy in the U.S.
Brown achieved another distinction in 1941, when she became the first African-American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP); she was commissioned a Lieutenant and named federal coordinator of the Civil Air Patrol unit in Chicago.
Lt. Col. Derek V. Stacker