From Riots to Renaissance: Black Aviation

Black Chicago is synonymous with jazz and the blues, but few know about the city's courageous black pilots who changed aviation history. When flying was still a novelty, these men and women took to the skies and in the process helped open the door for blacks to train and fly as pilots in World War II.

Chicago's significant role in the black aviation movement began with two eager, young men who shared a passion for flying. In the 1920s, Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson met in Detroit, Michigan, where they were working as auto mechanics. Both men wanted to learn to fly and both were inspired by pioneering, Chicago aviatrix Bessie Coleman who overcame racial and sexual barriers to become a licensed pilot. They applied to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago and were accepted. However, upon learning that the two mechanics were black, the school revoked their admission.

Undaunted, Robinson convinced the school to hire him as a maintenance worker. While on the job, he listened in on classes, and at home he read books and papers he collected from the school's trash cans. Then, together with the help of Coffey and other aviation enthusiasts, they built a small airplane from a purchased airplane kit and a used motorcycle motor. The friends persuaded one of the school's instructors to inspect the plane and take a ride. Awed by its craftsmanship, the instructor informed his colleagues of Robinson and Coffey's remarkable achievement and encouraged their admission to the school. In 1929, Robinson and Coffey became the first black students to be enrolled at Curtiss-Wright. Later, they broke a second barrier by becoming the first black instructors of a certified aviation school in the United States when Curtiss-Wright hired them to teach 35 black students in night classes.

At the time, black aviators were not allowed to fly out of airports used by whites. So Robinson and Coffey set out to establish an airfield for aspiring black aviators. Along with the black students from the school, they formed the Challenger Aero Club. The club members secured land in Robbins, Illinois for an airport, where they constructed an airstrip with their own hands. One of the club members, Janet Harmon-Bragg, a nurse and flight student, purchased an airplane so she and others could fly.

Robbins Airport served as a training facility for aspiring black pilots until it was destroyed by a violent windstorm in 1933. The Challenger Aero Club then moved its activities to Harlem Airport on Chicago's Southwest side. There, a young woman named Willa Brown joined the black aviators. Brown enlisted the help of the Chicago Defender to promote black aeronautics and spread the news of these adventurous pilots across the nation. In 1938, Brown and Coffey established Coffey School of Aeronautics at the airport. Hundreds of men trained under Coffey, many of whom later became members of the Tuskegee Airmen who flew in World War II.

Robinson, Coffey, and their colleagues not only contributed to the advancement of black aviators in Chicago, but they also inspired African Americans across the country to participate in aeronautics. Among their many national achievements is their successful push for the participation of black pilots in the U. S. Army Air Corps.