Black Wings

Headwinds — Early Pioneers

Curtiss JN-4

The birth of aviation in the United States coincided with the era of Jim Crow, a climate of formal and informal racial discrimination. African Americans — as a group — found themselves excluded from most spheres of modern technology and from this new exciting realm of aviation. One young woman from Chicago broke this barrier of racial prejudices.

Bessie Coleman became one of the first African Americans to earn a pilot's license and to seek a career in aviation. She was joined by a small but growing number of air enthusiasts who shared her dream.

Visionary William J. Powell Jr. wrote the book, Black Wings, and organized a flying club in Los Angeles. James Herman Banning established impressive records as a long-distance flyer. Cornelius Coffey forged a new center for black aviators in Chicago.

The First Female African American Licensed Pilot — Bessie Coleman

Coleman broke through the headwinds of racial prejudice as a barnstorming pilot at air shows in the 1920s. As a pilot, Bessie Coleman quickly established a benchmark for her race and gender in the 1920s. She toured the country as a barnstormer, performing aerobatics at air shows.

Her flying career, however, proved to be short-lived. She died in a plane crash in 1926, her untimely death coming just a year before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.

For the African American community, Bessie Coleman became an enduring symbol of how a talented and highly motivated person could seek out a career in aviation.


Bessie Coleman

The Visionary — William J. Powell Jr.

Powell dreamed of African Americans finding their rightful place in the air age as pilots and mechanics, a vision he called "Black Wings."

William J. Powell led a small group of black air enthusiasts in Los Angeles during the 1920s. He established the Bessie Coleman Flying Club and sponsored the first all-black air show.

He called for the full participation of African Americans in aviation as pilots, mechanics, and business leaders. To achieve this end, he wrote his visionary book, Black Wings, produced a documentary film, and worked tirelessly to mobilize African American youth for aviation.


William J. Powell in 1917

Long Distance Flying — James Herman Banning

Flying from Los Angeles to New York, Banning set a new record for black pilots and paved the way for other pioneering black aviation record setters.

Long-distance flying offered a dramatic way for African American pilots to showcase their flying skills. James Herman Banning emerged as one of the most talented barnstorming pilots. In 1932 Banning and Thomas C. Allen completed the first transcontinental flight by black airmen.

Banning and other long-distance pilots used their flying exploits to promote airmindedness in the African American community. Each successful flight demonstrated the expanding skills of black pilots and promoted the idea that aviation should be open to all, regardless of race.


J. Herman Banning

Flying in Chicago — Cornelius Coffey

The "Golden Age of Flight" in the 1920s and 1930s gave rise to many aerial spectaculars, such as long-distance flights across continents and oceans.

During the Great Depression, Chicago rivaled Los Angeles as a center for black aviation with a highly successful flying club for African Americans, led by Coffey.

A skilled auto mechanic, Cornelius Coffey dreamed of becoming a pilot. In 1931 he brought together a group of black air enthusiasts to study at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School. Then he helped organize the Challengers Air Pilots' Association to expand flying opportunities for African Americans in Chicago. Excluded from local airfields, they set up their own at Robbins, Illinois.

In Chicago, Coffey helped establish training classes, and his School of Aeronautics received a franchise from the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Coffey and his fellow air enthusiasts promoted the flight of Chauncey Spencer and Dale White, who flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in 1939 to campaign for an end to racial segregation in aviation.


Cornelius R. Coffey

Willa Brown

Pioneer aviator Willa Brown played a prominent role in Coffey's Chicago flying club, offering a role model for young African American women.

Brown wanted to promote awareness of African Americans pilots. She invited the editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper to an airshow at the Harlem airport in Chicago. Instead of sending a reporter, he went to the show himself. Brown took him for a thrilling flight in her Piper Cub... a ride he wouldn't soon forget.


Willa Brown