Willa Beatrice Brown, one of a small group of pre-World War II black women aviators, was born in Glasgow, Kentucky on January 22, 1906. The daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Erice B. Brown, she graduated from Wiley High School in Terra Haute, Indiana. In 1927, Brown earned a Bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) and ten years later a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Northwestern University.
After briefly teaching at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to become a social worker. It was there, however, that she decided to learn how to fly. In 1934 Brown began her flight instruction under the direction of John Robinson and Cornelius Coffey. She also studied at the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University and in 1935 earned a Masters Mechanic Certificate.
In 1937 Brown became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Two years later she married her former flight instructor, Cornelius Coffey, and they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first black-owned and operated private flight training academy in the U.S.