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

In the history of black aviation, it is Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, who is usually remembered as the one who opened the skies to African-American aviators. Less well known is Cornelius Coffey, who, with much the same vision and fighting the same obstructions, changed a corn patch in south Chicago into an airport that housed the nation’s first large group of young, talented, and black aviators.

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In the years just before and after World War I, some 180,000 black Southerners immigrated to Chicago, settling on the city’s rough south side. It was there that Coleman, a Texas transplant who wanted to fly, learned that aviation schools didn’t accept African-American applicants. She had to sail to France to earn a pilot’s license. “Queen Bess” subsequently became the toast of the black newspaper Chicago Defender, and when she died in a fall from her airplane in 1926, some 10,000 black Chicago mourners filed past her coffin.

Coffey never met Coleman. The Arkansas native quietly mapped his own route to the sky. Young Coffey possessed a great gift for mech­anical work. He was the top graduate in a south Chicago auto engineering class in 1925, quickly earning the allegiance of Emil Mack, the white Chevrolet dealer who employed him. Coffey later found a spot at the dealership for a mechanic friend named John Robinson.

The two young men wanted to fly, but no one would teach them, so they taught themselves. Later, in 1929, they enrolled in an aviation mechanics program at Chicago’s Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. When they showed up for class, they were turned away because they were black, even though they had already paid their tuition. Mack threatened to sue on their behalf, and the school reluctantly admitted the pair. In 1931, the 28-year-old Coffey finished first in his graduating class and Robinson second. Two weeks later, Coffey took the exam to earn his mechanic’s license from the U.S. government. The school must have been impressed, because it changed its policy, inviting the men to return and teach all-black classes. They did.

The aviation mechanic’s degrees didn’t open many doors, however. Coffey and Robinson were still unwelcome at airstrips except Akers Airport, near where they worked, so when Akers closed, they were grounded. The men joined with several other local black aviation enthusiasts to form the Challenger Air Pilots Association (the name referred to the Curtiss Challenger engine). The new group looked for a place to fly from.

In 1931, the group, joined by one or two white pilots from Akers, bought a half-mile-wide tract of land in Robbins, an all-black town southwest of Chicago. There they buried boulders, dropped trees, roughly leveled the terrain, and cobbled together a hangar from second-hand lumber. When they finished, their small fleet of disparate craft—a Church Mid-Wing, an International F-17, and a WACO 9—was parked under the roof at what historians consider the first black-owned airport in the United States. The achievement is mostly a historical footnote: About a year later, a violent thunderstorm roared through Robbins, demolishing the hangar, flipping airplanes, and scattering hopes.

But a few miles north, at the intersection of 87th Street and Harlem Avenue in Oak Lawn, William Schumacher had purchased 140 acres of farmland with an airport in mind. His brother Fred would manage it. Before Robbins’ devastating storm, Fred Schumacher visited Robbins and, probably sensing a good tenant, invited the group to come use his brother’s airport.

After the storm, while Coffey was on a trip to Detroit, Robinson and two other Challenger members—pilot Dale Lawrence White and Curtiss-Wright school graduate Harold Hurd—approached Fred Schumacher to take him up on his offer. The facility was taking shape. Grass had sprouted where cornstalks had been plowed under, and a hangar and office sprang up along Harlem Avenue.

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.

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