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Honoring Black History Month at the Air Zoo - Willa Brown

Willa Brown  

Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992) made history two years in a row as the first black woman in America to earn a pilot’s license in 1938, immediately followed by a commercial flight license in 1939. She also made history when she became the first black woman commissioned as a U.S. Civil Air Patrol lieutenant in Illinois. Her ambitions also led Willa to run for office, which made her the first black woman to run for United States Congress.  

The history maker learned to fly on the southwest side of Chicago at Harlem Field during her master’s degree work at Northwestern University. In 1935, backed by her Master Mechanic Certificate, Willa began teaching flight and ground school courses. A year later, the intrepid Willa helped publicize and flew in a well-attended black air show at Harlem Field with her husband in tow.  

Willa is also remembered for her role as a founding member of the National Airmen Association. Willa and the association members lobbied for the U.S. Army Air Corps to train and deploy black pilots during World War II. Willa not only helped open the doors for black pilots to contribute to the war and risk (and sometimes, give) their lives for their country, but she also trained cadets who later became the all-black aerial combat unit known today as the Tuskegee Airmen.  

Image from National Museum of Air and Space, Smithsonian Institution.

 

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