Willa Brown Chappell was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow Kentucky, where she lived for the first few years of her life. In her early years, her family moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where she finished her primary schooling and education. Throughout the entirety of her life, Chappell always valued education. She received a Bachelor’s degree in business from the Indiana Teacher’s College in 1927. In 1937, she went on to complete her MBA from Northwestern University. She then became a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana. Over time, she made the decision to move to Chicago and become a social worker.
Her passion for flying was introduced to her by pilot Cornelius Coffey. Determined to make her way as a pilot, Willa helped Cornelius with his schooling and flight training. Over time, the two decided to marry and open an aviation school of their own. This was to become the first private flight training academy in the United States that was owned and operated by Black Americans. The school was named the “Coffey School of Aviation” and it was not segregated. The flight school trained anyone that had an interest in learning how to fly.
During this time, Willa also encouraged the government to allow more Black Americans to receive a piloting license and even serve in the military as pilots. In fact, hundreds of the pilots that Chappell trained went on to become Tuskegee Airmen, and the United States Army selected Willa to provide Black trainees for the pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute.
As for her own personal flight career, in 1938, Chappell became the first Black American woman to earn a private pilot’s license in the United States. She also served in WWII as a pilot, where she became the first Black American to be commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol. She was also the first Black American woman to run for congress, and was the first Black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the United States.
During this time, American women were encouraged to adopt domestic lifestyles and dedicate their time to their family, husband and home. It was not common to see a woman in a position of professional power. However, Chappell rejected these expectations and standards, and instead, set her sights high, inspiring many women along her path. Additionally, for incredibly relevant context, this all took place before the American Civil Rights movements began.
Despite what may have been going on in the world around her, or the challenges and discrimination she faced along the way, Willa always remained dedicated to her work, herself and to uplifting those around her. She was a teacher, social worker, pilot and activist, and the influences of her work can still be felt today.
By: Briahna McTigue