The Other Harlem

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

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

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“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.

“Shoes” sold Coffey a 50-horsepower Piper Cub needed for primary flight training, and another white friend helped Coffey buy a second one. For secondary training, Coffey and Brown cajoled the Curtiss-Wright school into lending two 220-horsepower WACO PT-14s.

The Coffey school also would teach cross-country and flight instruction; it and Tuskegee were the only black programs offering all four levels of instruction.
Each trainee received 35 hours of flight time. By June 1941, the school’s fleet—mostly Cubs—had increased to 10. When rain caused excessive puddling on Harlem’s sod runways, the students practiced from paved airfields in Harvey or Joliet.

Everything about the civilian pilot training program at Harlem was modest. Coffey and Brown lived in a small cottage at the southern tip of the airport, a building that doubled as the couple’s Civil Air Patrol unit headquarters. Classroom work was conducted in a small one-room building crowded with student desks.
The government wouldn’t fund student housing at Harlem, so in 1942 supporters of the program erected a dormitory: a cot-lined room, with adjacent latrines and showers. At one end, Brown supervised a dining area that served three meals a day to flight students and anyone else who wandered in.

“The atmosphere at Harlem was one of camaraderie,” recalls Quentin Smith. He trained at the airport in 1942 at the invitation of Brown, whom he had known in Indiana. Smith says in his months at Harlem, all the student pilots had at least some college education and quickly bonded. “Every day it wasn’t raining and we weren’t flying, all we had to do was study,” he recalls. “In the evenings, we’d get in the planes and get the feel of them. I probably wouldn’t have made it without all the camaraderie. I mean, out there we were so far from black people, we had to drive 20 miles just to see any.”

To bolster the students' esprit de corps, Coffey and Brown procured olive green Civilian Conservation Corps uniforms. They also quietly used some of their own earnings to set up a pool of cash that the unpaid students could dip into for incidental needs.

Coffey remained committed to integration. When the Army Air Corps announced that the military unit from Tuskegee would be segregated from white servicemen, Coffey, speaking as NAA president, objected. “We’d rather be excluded than to be segregated,” he declared. In the end, Army traditions prevailed. The Tuskegee Airmen would be a separate fighting unit, known informally as the Red Tails; their most famous mission was flying escort for bombers in Europe.

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