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During wartime flight instruction at Harlem, students learned on a WACO UPF-7 trainer; the field also had Piper Cubs. (SI-99-15432~P)

The Other Harlem

In 1930s Chicago, at the corner of 87th Street and Harlem Avenue, Cornelius Coffey made aviation history.

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.

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.

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