The Other Harlem
In 1930s Chicago, at the corner of 87th Street and Harlem Avenue, Cornelius Coffey made aviation history.
- By Giles Lambertson
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 2 of 6)
Schumacher readily agreed to rent the lower end of the airport to the Challenger group, but in an interview recorded for the Smithsonian Video History Program on black aviators, Hurd said that Schumacher initially insisted on segregation. He was already running an all-white school. “Look, fellas,” he said, “I’m going to put you at the end of the field to save you from having any trouble with the other guys.”
Black and white pilots parked their airplanes in separate hangars, but they shared Harlem’s four sod runways, the longest of which was 2,000 feet. The rural area soon echoed with the thundering exhausts of Curtiss engines; the sky above the corn and wheat fields of Worth Township teemed with WACOs, Travel Airs, and Taylor Cubs.
The leaders of the Challenger group were acknowledged to be Coffey and Robinson. Other than sharing a love of flight, though, the two men were remarkably dissimilar. Coffey was “a gentle man in every sense of the word,” recalls Lynda Foose Hemann, daughter of Coffey’s longtime friend, Marcellus Foose.
About five-foot-six and slightly built, Coffey had a large presence. He was formally uneducated, but contemplative. Quentin Smith, now 91, who learned to fly from him, describes Coffey as a person from “the old school. He never shouted. He never said a word that was foul. He always was quiet.” The talented Robinson, on the other hand, was impulsive and self-promoting.
A 1934 incident well illustrates the differences between the two men’s temperaments. On the 10th anniversary of Robinson’s graduation from the auto mechanic program at the all-black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Robinson asked Coffey to fly to Alabama with him to try to persuade Tuskegee administrators to teach flying.
The pair left Harlem in a two-place International F-17 owned by Challenger member and pilot Janet Waterford. At one stop, despite Coffey’s protests, Robinson insisted on taking off from a short runway while weighed down with too much fuel, and the aircraft crashed. When the two men finally arrived at Tuskegee, administrators rejected their offer to set up a flight instruction program. Coffey was convinced that Robinson’s loss of the International had ruined their credibility as proponents of flight. (The following year, Robinson moved to Ethiopia to use his flying skills to fight an invading Italian army. He died there nine years later after a crash.)
At Harlem Airport, Schumacher asked Coffey to re-certify the overhauled aircraft of his white customers, enabling Coffey to begin earning money as a mechanic. It was the start of an agreeable working relationship with the man Coffey called “Shoes.”
The Coffey Flying School operated on the south end of the airport, and Schumacher’s school on the north. Coffey taught both white and black students together. “Every 10 students that I took, I had one white student and one girl student in that unit,” he said years later.
One of those “girl students” was Willa Brown, a former Curtiss-Wright student of Coffey’s. In 1938, the pert 27-year-old traveled to Harlem to take flying lessons from her old teacher. Two years earlier, Brown, a former Gary, Indiana schoolteacher with a master’s degree in business administration, had strutted into the Chicago Defender newsroom in jodhpurs and boots to promote an amateur airshow at Harlem. City editor Enoc Waters was so taken by her that he assigned himself to cover the event.