Black Women’s History: The Chicago Airwomen Behind the Tuskegee Airmen

By Stanley Sotamillo

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Janet Harmon (left) and Willa Brown (right) were both pilots who acquired their private licenses in 1934 and 1937, respectively.  Brown received her commercial license later in 1939, followed by Harmon in 1943.  Both Harmon and Brown recruited students through exhibition flying and other methods.  Harmon penned articles on “Negro Flight” for the Chicago Defender and Brown even hosted radio programs.  Brown was also co-owner and director of the Coffey School of Aeronautics that operated from 1938-45.  The school trained and qualified black student pilots under the Civilian Pilot Training Program or “CPTP” so that they could enter the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Tuskegee Institute. (Janet Harmon photo) courtesy Smithsonian Institutional Travelling Exhibition Service and (Willa Brown photo) courtesy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institute.

Black Women’s History: The Chicago Airwomen Behind the 

Tuskegee Airmen 

Of the 990,000 African Americans who served in the military during World War II, 926 were fighter and bomber pilots (in addition to 132 navigators) who comprised the 99th Fighter (Pursuit) Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, and 477th Bombardment Group.  This contrasts sharply with the 193,000 Euro-American men who were fighter and bomber pilots during the same period.  Some 1,102 Euro-American women also flew as Women Airforce Service Pilots or “WASPs,” ferrying planes from factories to bases on the east and west coasts.  Although the latter included at least one Asian and several Hispanic women, no black women were provided the same opportunity, even though there were licensed pilots flying in the U.S. when the country entered the war in 1941.

In 2015 almost everyone in the U.S. knew something about the black pilots who flew under the moniker of the “Tuskegee Airmen.”  There had been an HBO television movie with the same name (1995), a PBS documentary styled, “The Tuskegee Airmen – They Fought Two Wars” (2002), a History Channel mini-documentary with the earlier title (2012), as well as a Lucasfilm release called “Red Tails” (2012).  There were also at least a dozen books written on the Tuskegee pilots and a number of informational sites on the worldwide web, including some that attempted to cast doubt on their achievements and importance.  Despite the plethora of sources on the program and its graduates, however, few people knew about two black women pilots in Chicago—Janet Harmon (Bragg) and Willa Brown (Coffey)—who helped to recruit and train them.

Both had followed on the wings of Bessie Coleman (1895-1926), a Texas native and the first American black female pilot, who received her training in France (because no one in the U.S. would teach her) as well as her pilot’s license in that country in 1921, but died while rehearsing stunts for an air show in Jacksonville, Florida in 1926.

Janet Harmon (1907-93) was born in Griffin, Georgia, completed high school in Fort Valley, Georgia and attended Spellman Seminary (now Spellman College) in Atlanta.  She graduated with a degree in Nursing in 1929, having received her training at MacBicar Hospital, located on the Spellman campus, and then moved to Rockford, Illinois to live with an older sibling, following a brief stint in a segregated hospital in Griffin.

Harmon passed the Illinois licensing exam to become a registered nurse (R.N.) but was unable to find employment at a Rockford hospital, so she relocated to Chicago where she was hired at Wilson Hospital.  She quit the hospital for a better paying job at a medical office, pursued graduate studies in pediatrics at the Cook County School of Nursing, and acquired a graduate certificate in public health administration from Loyola University.  The latter provided her with an opportunity for more lucrative employment as a health inspector for the black-owned Metropolitan Burial Insurance Company.

Harmon had an interest in flying since childhood and credited a Chicago billboard with the caption, “Birds Learn to Fly. Why Can’t You?” for igniting her desire to become a pilot.  She enrolled as the only black woman in the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University, a segregated institution that trained black aircraft mechanics and issued master mechanic’s certificates.  Under the instruction of John Robinson and Cornelius Coffey (both Aeronautical University alumni and pioneering black pilots), Harmon learned plane maintenance and the basics of flying.  The $15 per hour cost for flying time was prohibitive, however, so, she purchased her own plane for $600 with the intent to fly and rent it to fellow students.

There was no local airfield that would allow black pilots to base or fly their planes from and Harmon is recalled, along with instructors Robinson and Coffey, and some members of her class as having formed the Challenger Aero Club, and gone looking for a site.  They found one in Robbins, Illinois, a black town that had been established earlier in 1917, then cleared it and constructed a landing strip that was operational by 1932.  On June 11 of that year, The Pittsburgh Courier, beneath the headline, “Queen of the Air,” and a photograph of her standing in front of a three-seat trainer, described Harmon as president of the “Challenger Aero Club,” noted that the “Challenger Club ha[d] established a flying field in the all-Negro town [of] Robbins, and [that] a celebration [was] planned for July 4.”

The elation of that year was brief, however, because a severe thunderstorm destroyed the landing strip in the Spring of 1933.  Despite the loss of the Robbins airfield, the achievements of Harmon and other black pilots who trained there prompted white owners of Harlem Field in suburban Oak Lawn, which had been established to train white pilots in 1928, to invite them to use their airfield.  Harmon received her private pilot’s license in 1934, flying out of Harlem Field, and posed for a portrait while sitting on the fence at the airport in that year.  Attesting to her dedication to her second career, for the rest of the decade, Harmon also wrote a weekly column titled, “Negro Aviation” for the Chicago Defender under her then married name of Janet Waterford.  Her writing served as a recruitment tool for the Aeronautical University and later, for the Coffey School of Aeronautics that opened in 1938.

Willa Brown (1906-92) was born in Glasgow, Kentucky in 1906, graduated from high school in Terre Haute, Indiana, and degreed from Indiana State Teacher’s College in 1927.  She first taught in the Indiana schools and then moved to Chicago where she followed Harmon in attending Aeronautical University in 1934, and acquired her master mechanic’s certificate in the following year.  Brown joined the Challenger Aero Club and also enrolled in an MBA program at Northwestern University.  Training at Harlem Field as well, she acquired her private pilot’s license in 1937 and her MBA sometime thereafter.  In the following year, Brown and Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics in suburban Oak Lawn, then lobbied the assistance of government officials as well as Senators Harry S. Truman (Missouri) and Everett Dirksen (Illinois) to ensure the school’s participation in the CPTP, along with their alma mater, Aeronautics University.  Their efforts resulted in Chicago being the only city in the nation with two schools (one black-owned) that were dedicated to the training of black pilots.

The Coffey School remained in operation through 1945 and is remembered as having trained over 500 male pilots who later graduated from the Air Corps Advance Flying School at Tuskegee Field.  There were also at least three other black women who studied at the Coffey school and presumably acquired their pilot’s licenses while flying out of Harlem Field, which later closed in 1956.  They were recorded in a photograph that was published in the January 13, 1940 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier beneath the headline “Colored Aviation” and sub-head, “Chicago Girls Have Organized Flight Club.”  The women included: Lola James, Doris Murphy, and Delores Renfroe.  Their achievements were later shared by Mildred Carter, another black woman pilot, who was a member of the first graduating class from the Tuskegee program.

Harmon and Brown both applied to ferry military aircraft across the U.S. during World War II as Women Airforce Service Pilots or “WASPs” but were rejected despite their credentials.  After being turned down by the WASPs, Harmon entered the CPTP School at Tuskegee to qualify for the commercial license.  She passed both the written and flight exams but was prevented from obtaining her license because of a prejudiced white examiner.  She returned to Chicago, retook and passed the exams once more and was issued a commercial license by another white examiner in 1943.

While flying, Harmon continued to work as a health inspector through war’s end, then in the post-war period acquired and operated nursing homes in Georgia with her husband, Sumner Bragg, before retiring to Tucson, Arizona.  Brown stayed in Chicago, briefly married Coffey, then divorced and re-married Rev. J.H. Chapell who was also a pilot.  She first held two Federal appointments: Coordinator for the Chicago Unit of the CPTP in 1940 and Lieutenant in the Civilian Air Patrol (CAP) in Illinois in 1942, the latter in charge of a 25-pilot black squadron.  She was later employed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base at Waukegan.  Brown was the first black woman to have a successful career in aviation and was ultimately appointed to serve as the first black member of the Women’s Advisory Committee on Aviation for the Federal Aviation Administration.  She noted in remarks read before the Tuskegee Airmen’s Fourth Annual Convention in 1974 that: “We desperately wanted blacks to fly…and [w]e needed everybody’s help…”  As a result of the untiring efforts of Brown and Harmon in the 1930s, in 2015 there were black female and male pilots who routinely flew military and civil aircraft in the U.S. and abroad.


Note: Although there are multiple sources on Harmon, Brown, and Coffey, including entries in the multi-volume African American National Biography, there remain a number of discrepancies between the individual biographies.  Time limitations unfortunately preclude the necessary newspaper, city directory, and/or record research that is required in order to resolve them.

Bragg, Janet [Harmon] and Marjorie Kriz.  Soaring Above Setbacks (Smithsonian History of Aviation and Spaceflight Series).  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1996.

Garret, Jim.  “Coffey, Cornelius Robinson.”  In African American National Biography.  Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, editors.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, Vol. 2, pp. 343-344.

Gubert, Betty Kaplan.  “Brown, Willa.”  In African American National Biography.  Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, editors.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, Vol. 2, pp. 6-7.

Sawyer, Miriam. “Bragg, Janet.”  In African American National Biography.  Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, editors.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, Vol. 1, pp. 533-534.

_______.  “Bragg, Janet.”  In American National Biography, Supplement 2, Mark C. Carnes, editor.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 34-35.

Hardy, Jeff.  “A Dream of Wings, Black Female Pilot Mildred Carter was Frustrated by Her Effort to Serve in the Skies, But in Tuskegee, She’s Counted among the Famed Airmen.” Mobile Alabama Register, n.d., n.p. https://www.lwfaam.net/ww2/hf/ta_wings.htm  Accessed February 2, 2016.

Lambertson, Giles. “The Other Harlem.”  Air and Space Magazine, March 2010. https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/the-other-harlem-5922057/?no-ist  Accessed February 3, 2016.

Rogers, Joan.  “Janet Harmon Bragg.  Summary of 1989 Oral History [1996]”;  “Summary Interview with Janet Harmon Bragg.”  In the Steps of Esteban: Tuscan’s African American Heritage.   https://parentseyes.arizona.edu/esteban/bios_med-legal_bragg.html  Accessed February 2, 2016.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  “Cornelius Coffey.”  Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery.  https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/cornelius-coffey  Accessed February 3, 2016.

_______.  “Janet Bragg.”  Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery.  https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/janet-bragg-0  Accessed February 3, 2016.

_______.  “Willa Brown.”  Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery.  https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/willa-brown-0  Accessed February 3, 2016.

Smithsonian Institutional Travelling Exhibition Service.  “Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight.”  https://sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/blackWings/index.htm  Accessed February 3, 2016.

Tucker, Philip Thomas.  Father of the Tuskegee Airmen: John C. Robinson.  Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012.

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