From the Hangars

African American Aviation History Focus: Cornelius Coffey

Feb 24, 2022


Image from the Smithsonian Institute

In our current exhibition about Ambassador Andrew Young we included a timeline outlining African American Aviation History. Starting during Black History Month we will begin in this space to explore some of the entries in more detail. This month we focus on Cornelius Coffey.

In 1938, Cornelius Coffey established the first black-owned and operated aviation school in the United States. During an era in which African Americans were kept out of pilot training and aviation training programs in this country his work was a crucial measure that would eventually contribute to integrating the American aviation industry.

Born in Newport, Arkansas, in 1903 (just months before the Wright brothers first flight), Coffey took his first ride in an airplane at the age of 13. In 1925, Coffey moved to Chicago, Illinois where he studied auto mechanics. There he met John C. Robinson and the two attempted to enroll in pilot training programs, but were denied because of their race. With no sanctioned training available, Coffey and Robinson built their own airplane using a motorcycle engine and taught themselves how to fly it.

Even with self-taught skills they knew that without an official license they could never fly the planes they dreamed about, so they sued to enroll in the Curtis-Wright School of Aeronautics in 1929. The suit accused the school of engaging in racial discrimination. Curtis-Wright requested that Coffey drop the case in exchange for the offer of night classes for himself and Robinson.

After graduating, Coffey became the first African American to obtain both a pilot's and mechanic license. Coffey and Robinson along with other Black aviators created the Challenger Air Pilots Association in 1931 to continue efforts to expand the integration of aviation.

During the next 63 years of his life, Coffey would be devoted to expanding the opportunities for African Americans in aviation. These efforts included creating a Black-operated airport in Robbins, Illinois and in 1938 the Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first African American owned and operated school of its kind, located at Harlem Airport in Oaklawn, Illinois. Some of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II began their flight careers at the Coffey School. (Coffey himself was opposed to the Tuskegee program - since it continued the practice of racial segregation).

Though Coffey faced off with racial discrimination throughout his lifetime, no wall of hatred and ignorance was strong enough or high enough to keep him on the ground.   

Learn more about Coffey, Robinson and their Challenger Air Pilots Association here.




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