Aviation’s Pioneer Colorful Women Program
By Vince Saunders
As we gathered under a tent at Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery to pay tribute to legendary pilots Bessie Coleman, Willa B. Brown and Janet Harmon, the blue sky was slightly overcast with high scattered clouds that promised a small chance of afternoon rain. Organized by chapter pilot Rufus Hunt; on Saturday, May 1st, the Chicago Chapter of TAI conducted its 31st Annual Salute to these pioneering female aviators. Fortunately, the late rain limited to a sprinkle, only dampened the grass rather than our mood. It turned out to be a good day and our spirits were brighter than the sky.
The program was initiated by Civil Air Patrol Cadets from Thornwood High School. Commanded by recent graduate, 1st Lt. Harding who marched the cadets ¼ mile from Lincoln’s administration building to the program site, posted the colors, then withdrew to join the other program attendees under the tent. The Invocation was delivered by Chapter Member Alcus Cromartie followed by an excellent program introduction from our Mistress of Ceremonies, Ms. Aida Abraha. Ms. Abraha also provided recognition of our OTAs in attendance, Mr. Bev Dunjill and Milton Williams. The program was also attended by descendants of Georgia Coleman (Dean Stallworth, Jr., et al), Bessie Coleman’s youngest sister.
We were then given a gracious welcome by Ms. Diane Nowak, General Manager of Lincoln Cemetery, representing our organizational partner and host. Ms. Nowak discussed essays on Bessie Coleman and other pioneering aviators prepared by students
from the Kipling elementary school. Their essays focused on why the program is so important to the youth of our community in that it helps ensure that the legacy of these aviatrix is never lost. Ms. Nowak reminded us that both Bessie and Willa Brown are interred at Lincoln and noted that a memorial to Janet Harmon, who is buried in Arizona; will be provided for next year’s ceremony.
Lewis Addison representing the Bessis Coleman Branch of the Chicago Public Library system; read a resolution from Congressman Danny K. Davis, who noted the legacy of these famous aviators and their pioneering contributions to the field of aviation. Tributes were then provided by Ms. Stacy Letton on the legacy of Willa Brown and Ms. Sandra Campbell, on the legacy of Bessie Coleman.
Ms. Letton presented to us how through the combined efforts of Willa Beatrice Brown and Cornelius R. Coffey, they contributed to the pre-WWII training of approximately 200 of the some 2000 aviation students who went on to become Tuskegee Airmen pilots. Ms. Letton also discussed how Chicago became the nucleus of Black Aviation during the 1920s and 30s.
Influenced by the aviatrix Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown started taking flying lessons in 1934 and in 1937 she became the first African-American woman to get a commercial pilot’s license. After relocating to Chicago from Gary, IN, she became a member of the Challenger Aviation Club, the Air Pilot’s Association, and the Chicago Girls Flight Club. Also in 1937 she purchased her own airplane and co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA) with her husband, Cornelius Coffey. The Association’s goal was to promote African-American aviation.
Ms. Letton also told us that Willa was instrumental in establishing the Coffey School of Aeronautics. And in doing so, she fulfilled Bessie Coleman’s long standing dream of a black owned private flight school. As the president of the Chicago branch of the NAAA, Willa led a successful fight to integrate African Americans into the U.S. Army Corps.
Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, Willa became the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol. She was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board and became the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Willa added still another first to her prestigious career when in 1946 she became the first African American woman to run for Congress.
In 1941, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. At the outset of WWII, Ms. Brown was the first black woman to hold a commission in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
The following year, she became the first African-American member of the Civil Air Patrol. She also promoted aviation on the radio and taught it in high schools. In 1972, Brown became a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee on Aviation in the Federal Aviation Agency.
Sandra Campbell, who is a member of the Heart of America chapter of TAI, provided a superb presentation which she calls, “Follow Your Dreams”, based on the life of Queen Bess. The audience was enraptured by her historical depiction of the life of the legendary aviatrix. The metaphors she used, such as her passion for “purple jelly beans”, provided good lessons on life skills, so important for the many young people in attendance. “Success” she told them, “develops when preparation meets opportunity.” Speaking as Bessie, she recalled how with help from Robert Abbott Sengstake who encouraged her to go to night school to learn how to speak French, told her “you can do it Bess.” And so with financial support from Sengstake and the money she earned as a hairdresser in 1920 Chicago, she traveled to France where in 1921, she became the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license.Relying also on the wisdom learned from her Native American father who told her, “don’t take no for an answer”; because “remember Bess, every no you encounter only brings you closer to a yes”. Her father, discouraged by racism in early twentieth century Texas, left the family when Bessie was still a youth to find a better home for them among his own people. He told them that Jim Crow didn’t live in Indian Territory; his last words to young Bessie were, “follow your dreams.”
Ms. Campbell has been telling the “Bessie Coleman Story” around the country since 1995. She says that she is in the process of training and mentoring her successor and looking forward to retiring from
her public speaking career in the near future. If you haven’t seen one of her presentations, look for a video clip of “follow your dreams” on the chapter website (taichicago.org), by the end of June.
Following the presentation by Ms. Campbell, pilots from the Chicago and Detroit Chapters of Tuskegee Airmen, made several in-formation flyovers of the event. At about 500 feet and buffeted by a 20 knot wind, a flower drop over the gravesite of Bessie Coleman was made by Chicago pilot Rufus Hunt. The two 3-ship formation included Chief Pilot Ken Rapier flying a Piper Cherokee, Victor Croswell also flying a Piper Cherokee, Marvin Williams flying a Piper Warrior, Juan Haygood (Detroit), flying a Gruman Tiger and Robert Bejna and Rufus Hunt, both flying Cessna 150s.
The cost of the event was offset in part, thanks to the efforts of chapter members Sheila Chears-Webber, Sonjia Hall and Patricia Allen, who managed our merchandise sales operation.