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 3 of 6)
At Harlem, Brown became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. She also became indispensable to Coffey’s operation and to the black aviation movement. For a time, she also was Coffey’s wife. In 1939, editor Waters proposed that the Challenger Air Pilots Association broaden its scope; within weeks the new National Airman’s Association was chartered, with Coffey as president, Dale White as vice president, Brown as secretary, and Waters as the group’s unofficial promoter.
Around this time, war with Germany loomed, and President Franklin Roosevelt proposed spending $10 million to train civilian pilots for eventual induction into the Army Air Corps. NAA board members feared that black aviators would be excluded. To get Congress to take African-American aviation seriously, the board decided to stage a publicity stunt: Some members would fly to Washington.
White and fellow board member Chauncey Spencer were chosen to fly the Lincoln Page biplane, powered by a Kinner 90-horsepower engine. Spencer served as navigator; White, in the rear cockpit, was senior pilot. Dressed in bulky cotton one-piece flying suits with white silk scarves and leather headgear and goggles, the two men departed Harlem Airport in early May 1939.
During the 3,000-mile round trip, the airmen made several promotional landings, but the trip’s most significant encounter was unplanned. In Washington, D.C., the fliers and their local contact, Edgar Brown, president of a government employees union, were waiting for an underground train to get to a Senate office building when Brown realized the man standing next to them was the junior senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman.
“Good morning, Edgar,” Truman said. “Who are your two friends here?” Told of the flight from Chicago, Truman arranged to see their airplane later that day. For the rest of his life, Spencer enjoyed recalling how this unknown-to-him Midwestern senator took one look at the Lincoln Page, turned to the two fliers, and said, “If you guys had the guts to fly this thing to Washington, I’ve got guts enough to see that you get what you’re asking for.”
Biographies of the future U.S. president are silent about the encounter, but students of African-American aviation cite it as an antecedent of Truman’s 1948 presidential order fully integrating the armed services, and more broadly, the start of the campaign for full civil rights.
In late 1939, civilian pilot training sites were announced; they included seven for black students (Tuskegee, which had finally begun flight instruction, was one). The only black training site that was not a college campus was Harlem Airport.
Coffey was to direct flight training and personally maintain the aircraft of his renamed Coffey School of Aeronautics. Willa Brown would run a ground school at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School and coordinate the overall program.