This blog post was updated on February 26, 2021.

Despite the obstacles and the many odds stacked against them, a few trailblazing African-American pilots made vital contributions to the realm of aviation and in turn, stirred up major headwinds of change toward equality in the U.S. When it comes to naming those prominent African-American pioneers in aviation, for many, the image of a group of young, dashing pilots standing in front of a fleet of military planes is probably what comes to mind — the image of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. While this group of African-American pilots stands as an enduring symbol of how black aviators broke countless barriers and achieved numerous feats, few know the many women that paved the way for them to make history.

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, there was Janet, there was Willa, and there was Bessie. In honor of Black History Month, join us in celebrating these groundbreaking aviatrixes that reached for the skies, and made it up, up, and above adversity.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

Twenty years before the Tuskegee Airmen soared into World War II, eight years before the notorious all-female aviation organization known as the Ninety-Nines was formed. Six months before that,  Amelia Earhart became a licensed pilot; a 24-year-old African-American manicurist received her flying license and shattered innumerable glass ceilings for African-American women across the nation. Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, and was one of 13 children! In her humble beginnings helping her sharecropper parents, she never imagined that her barn-hand days would one day turn into “barnstorming” ones.

So where did her airborne curiosity stem from? Unable to complete her college education due to a lack of funds, Coleman decided to move out of Texas in 1916 to try her chances at finding more opportunities in Chicago. Soon after she arrived, she found a job as a manicurist at a local barbershop where she would hear stories from returning World War I pilots about flying during the war. Interest and tenacity piqued, Coleman took up another job to save up money as quickly as possible … to become a pilot. In a time where neither women nor African-Americans could be admitted into American flight schools, this future aviatrix took her determination abroad to Paris, France. At last, on June 15, 1921, Coleman received her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – making headlines as the first African-American woman to accomplish such a feat, not just in France … but in the entire world!

When she returned to Chicago, her sights were set on a new endeavor: a flight school for African Americans. To make and save enough money to do this, Coleman opened up a beauty parlor and got a job as a barnstorming pilot. “Barnstorming” was a popular style of stunt flying used to impress crowds throughout the 1920s, and in an era of severe segregation, she was best known for her refusal to perform unless the crowds were desegregated. Sadly, her dream of opening a flight school ended abruptly at the young age of 34, when she tragically died in a plane crash. While she didn’t get the chance to open up a flight school, Coleman single-handedly opened up the skies for many African-American women to pursue their aspirations.

Related: How Well do You Know Your Facts About Black History?

Willa Brown

Inspired by Bessie Coleman and eager to carry the torch of change through aviation firsts, a young and determined Willa Brown became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot license in the U.S. Like her inspirational predecessor, Brown moved to Chicago at a young age to broaden her scope for a career. After receiving her M.B.A from Northwestern University, a well-educated Willa started her professional life in Chi-town as a high school teacher and later as a social worker. Although she enjoyed being a role model and giving back to her community through her work, Brown felt that her intellect and talents weren’t being used to their potential. For Brown, there were boundaries to surpass and walls to break down as an educated, African-American woman, and so she took to the skies.

Brown learned how to fly from Cornelius Coffey, an expert aviation mechanic and certified flight instructor … and her soon-to-be husband. As the saying goes, love was definitely in the air for this pair. After she received her pilot’s license she married Coffey, and together they picked up where Coleman left off and opened the very first African-American flight school in the U.S. — The Coffey School of Aeronautics. She trained hundreds of pilots in her institution on all things aviation from cheap domestic flights to round trips abroad. Many of her students went on to become the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps — the Tuskegee Airmen. Yes, it was Brown’s valiant efforts and continuous lobbying for the integration of black pilots into the segregated Army Air Corps that eventually swayed Congress to finally allow separate-but-equal participation of blacks in civilian flight training programs like the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). After the Coffey School closed in 1945, Brown continued to march forward with her torch for change and eventually became the first black female officer in the Civil Air Patrol in the United States.

Janet Bragg

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There must have been something special in the air of Chicago; our third pioneering African-American aviatrix also started her trailblazing path of flight-firsts in the Windy City. Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg was born and raised in Georgia. A registered nurse by profession, her move to Chicago was fueled by the promise of better career opportunities, and it was here that she discovered her passion for flying. What started out as a hobby turned into a revolution for Bragg, when she became the first African-American woman to enroll in the Curtiss Wright School of Aeronautics — where she was the only woman in a class of 24 men. While in flight school, she continued to work as a nurse at several hospitals so she could save her money and purchase a plane, both to practice her skills and provide opportunities to other flying enthusiasts.

Determined to receive her pilot’s license so she could pursue her passion professionally, Bragg enrolled in the Tuskegee black pilot training school where she trained with many future military pilots (yep, you guessed it, the Tuskegee Airmen). Here too, she was the only woman, and as a result, constantly faced gender discrimination. So much so, that even after successfully taking all the classes and passing the flight test, she was denied the license. It took her 10 years after that incident to finally receive her commercial license in 1943, becoming the first woman to accomplish such a feat! License in hand, Bragg went on to train many female pilots during World War II, many of whom were selected as Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). But, when she applied to WASP she was turned down because she was African American. Although both her race and gender presented innumerable hurdles in her path to becoming a licensed pilot, Bragg continued to fly for pleasure and later detailed her perils in her autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks.

Which other African-American aviatrixes inspire you? Tell us about it in the comments section below!


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About The Author

In a past life, Tasmiah was either a Bollywood actress, renowned ethnographer or master chef; no questions asked. In this one, she is a shower-singing, croissant enthusiast, who also writes content for Fareportal, in that order.