Visit to Lincoln Cemetery Reveals Rich African American Aviation History

Long ago, they raced through the blue sky in fantastic flying machines, and now they rest beneath the earth at Lincoln Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. One is so renowned that pilots dropped flowers over her grave for many years to celebrate her achievements during her short life. One helped found the first Black-owned airport in the United States. Another was the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license. All three women are listed on Women in Aviation’s list of 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and Aerospace, and all had Native American heritage. They were aviation pioneers who broke racial barriers with gusto during a time in which there was hostility toward Black and Brown people in general, but especially for those who sought to break occupational barriers erected by racists. It is appalling now (as it was appalling then) that some White people blocked people of color from certain professions—or made it hard for them to receive the education or training that was necessary to prosper in their chosen occupation. It’s a basic human right to have the freedom to pursue the career that you want and to work where you want regardless of your ethnicity, religion, or gender. It is noteworthy to point out that the aviatrixes of color faced a double challenge—persevering in their dream profession not only because of their race, but also because of their gender.  

History is literally in our backyards—or our nearby cemeteries—if we just look. Last month, I began reading about female African American aviation pioneers and soon realized that Bessie Coleman, the world’s first licensed Black female pilot, was buried just a few miles from where I grew up. After subsequent research, I learned that 2 other African-American aviatrixes were buried at the same small cemetery. I decided to visit Lincoln Cemetery in order to see their graves, as another step to learning more about these groundbreaking women.

Lincoln Cemetery has a story of its own. It was founded in a time when few local cemeteries would bury the remains of people of color. More than 100 years ago, a group of African American funeral directors approached Raymond Olson (the owner of Oak Hill Cemetery, a nearby graveyard), and asked that a portion of his undeveloped property be opened as an African American cemetery. Olson agreed, and Lincoln Cemetery began accepting burials in April of 1911. Today, it is well-known for its high number of African American burials and for its well-known denizens.

copyright Andrew Morkes

Bessie Coleman

I visited Lincoln Cemetery on a cool day in early December. The first grave I sought was that of Bessie Coleman (1892-1926; Section 9, Lot 580, Grave N3-W 1/2). I parked my car in a hilly section in the southwest section of the cemetery and began to walk amongst the gravestones. Several flocks of sandhill cranes noisily passed over me as I walked—probably heading on their southerly migration to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge in Indiana and beyond. The sky was cobalt blue, the sun bright, and it felt good to be outdoors (especially after being cooped up indoors as a result of the pandemic). After about 10 minutes of walking, I found Coleman’s gravestone.  

Bessie Coleman was born into poverty in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892. Her mother was African American and her father was Native American. She had 12 brothers and sisters. She attended the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma, but was forced to drop out after one semester because she could not afford tuition. She moved to Chicago to live with her brothers and became a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor. Some of Coleman’s brothers served in France in World War I, and regaled her with stories of French female aviators—which inspired her to become a pilot. Unfortunately, no American flight school would accept her because she was both African American and a woman. Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender, advised Coleman to learn to fly in France. So she learned French and applied and was accepted by the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She trained on a rickety Nieuport Type 82, a 27-foot-long biplane with a 40-foot wingspan. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded Coleman an international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921. She became the first African American of either gender to earn a pilot’s license.

copyright Smithsonian
“The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.” —Bessie Coleman
(copyright National Archives)

Coleman dreamed of owning her own plane and starting a flight school. She eventually saved enough money to purchase a military surplus Curtiss JN-4, known informally as the Jenny, but was unable to open a flight school. Coleman began touring the country—extolling the joys of flight, giving flying exhibitions, and encouraging African American women to learn how to fly. Coleman performed the first public flight by an African American/Native American woman in 1922. According to the National Women’s History Museum, “she was famous for doing ‘loop-the-loops’ and making the shape of an ‘8’ in an airplane. People were fascinated by her performances and she became more popular both in the United States and in Europe.” Coleman was nicknamed “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess” because of her flying exploits. She continued to tour the United States and other countries, and refused to perform or speak in any setting where people of color did not receive the same rights as Whites. “I can only imagine the courage and determination it took to be an activist in this way, at a time when discrimination and violence against people of color were rampant across America,” said Charlotte Mangin, who produced a short documentary about Coleman for PBS’s American Masters series. 

Tragedy struck on April 30, 1926, when Coleman took a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills, who was piloting the plane. An engine malfunction caused Wills to lose control of the steering wheel and the plane flipped over. Coleman was ejected from the plane and died, with Willis passing away soon after when the plane crashed. Historical accounts say that Coleman was not wearing her seat belt because she was leaning over the edge of the cockpit to scout potential parachute landing spots. She’d just added parachute-jumping to her repertoire and planned to perform this feat at an air show the next day.

About 10,000 mourners attended Coleman’s funeral on Chicago’s South Side. The journalist and civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells presided over her funeral. Many continued to celebrate Coleman’s groundbreaking achievements. After her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs were founded throughout the country. These clubs organized the first all-African American air show on Labor Day, 1931, with attendance of approximately 15,000 spectators . Many tributes have been made to honor this aviation pioneer, including the formation of the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, a scholarship award created in her name, and a Bessie Coleman stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to go into space, carried a picture of Coleman with her on her flight. For years, a local flying club conducted a flyover of her grave and dropped flowers to honor her.

Janet Harmon Bragg

copyright Smithsonian

I next searched for the grave of Janet Harmon Bragg (1907-1993), one of the first African-American women pilots and one of the first Black woman to receive a commercial pilot’s license in the United States. I knew the section number where she was buried, but I couldn’t decipher the rest of the location information to find the exact spot of Bragg’s grave. I walked back and forth down the rows and rows of graves. Some graves had photos of the deceased, and I tried to think of what each person was like as I gazed at their photos. Everything is so still in a cemetery, but the photos often reflect the richness of the deceased’s lives. They were happy photos of people having fun at parties, celebrating their loved one at a graduation, or posing right after they were married. I love this aspect of cemeteries. After about 10 minutes, I found Bragg’s grave.

“According to recognized [aerodynamic] principles the bumblebee cannot [should not be able to] fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to total wing area. But, the bumblebee doesn’t know this. So he goes ahead and flies anyway. And they said Blacks were not mentally qualified to learn to fly. This is the insult that we have taken, we took and [are] still taking. They could not say that our bodies were too heavy or out of shape with our arms. We had the shapes and bodies of any other human being … and some beautiful bodies.” –Janet Harmon Bragg

Bragg was born on March 24, 1907, in Griffin, Georgia. Her maternal grandfather was a freed slave of Spanish descent, and her maternal grandmother was Native American (Cherokee). Bragg attended Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) and earned a nursing degree. She was appalled by the treatment of Black patients in southern hospitals—and Black people, in general—so she moved to Rockford, Illinois, and then Chicago. She worked as a registered nurse and a health inspector for an insurance company.

Bragg had always been fascinated by flying. As a child, she loved watching the birds take off and land and studying how they moved their bodies in flight. In 1933, Bragg saw a billboard with a drawing of a bird building a nest with chicks in the nest. The caption read, “Birds learn to fly. Why can’t you?” At that moment, Bragg decided to learn how to fly. She enrolled at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University Building in Chicago. Many of the male students refused to help her because she was a woman but, as one of the few students who had a job, she gained grudging respect from her classmates when she bought a plane for the class to rent for training. (The school did not have planes of its own.) It was the first of 3 airplanes that Bragg would own. Another problem: Black pilots were not allowed to use airports that were used by Whites. To solve this problem, Bragg, members of her class, and her instructors formed the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association (later known as the National Airmen’s Association of America), which acquired land and built an airfield in the all-Black village of Robbins, Illinois. It was the nation’s first Black-owned airport. Bragg and others in this group went on to establish the Coffey School of Aeronautics in 1939. This school and 6 African American colleges were chosen to participate in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), a government-funded aviation program that was created to prepare a reserve supply of civilian pilots who could provide flight assistance during a national emergency. The CPTP later sent students into the Army Air Corps training program at Tuskegee, Alabama.

In 1943, Bragg was inspired to help her country during World War II by joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots (a civilian women pilots’ organization that ferried equipment for the military, which is better known as WASP), but she was rejected because of her race.

Later that year, Bragg enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with a goal of earning her commercial pilot’s license. She excelled in her studies and in her flight test, but was denied a license because she was a Black woman. “There were so many things they said women couldn’t do and Blacks couldn’t do,” Bragg explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune about the challenges she overcame. “Every defeat to me was a challenge.” Bragg went back to the Chicago area and retook and passed the examination at Pal-Waukee Airport near Wheeling—becoming the first Black woman to receive a commercial pilot’s license.

“I hope that my experiences and the experiences of others [Black pioneer aviators] will serve a two fold purpose: 1) to convey the price that had to be paid to lay the foundation for today; but more importantly: 2) (I hope Black youth will realize) the kind of strength of character, the kind of determination and the importance of setting a goal, and [not] allowing anything to deter one from achieving that goal.” –Janet Harmon Bragg (copyright Smithsonian)

Bragg was an active aviator for nearly 4 decades, and remained a strong advocate throughout her life for increasing the number of people of color in aviation. She managed two nursing homes in Chicago until she and her husband retired to Tucson, Arizona, in 1972. Bragg volunteered with the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, and helped with its Black Wings exhibit. She also wrote Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator, which was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996. Bragg died in Blue Island, Illinois, on April 11, 1993.

Willa Brown

copyright Smithsonian

The last grave that I visited was that of Willa Brown (1906–1992; Sect. 40, Lot 359, Grave S3-E ½), the first Black women to receive a pilot’s license in the United States. I had trouble finding her grave, but kept walking up and down the rows of graves looking for her gravestone. I was tempted to give up because I thought I’d looked in every possible area in Section 40, but I felt like I needed to visit all 3 graves to tell the story of these women. I finally found her grave.

Willa Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky on January 22, 1906. Her father was African American and her mother was Native American. Her parents moved the family to Indiana so that she and her siblings could get a better education. Brown graduated from Wiley High School in Terra Haute, Indiana, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University). She worked briefly as a teacher in Gary, Indiana, then moved to Chicago to become a social worker for the Works Project Administration. It was in Chicago that Brown began to pursue her flying dreams after being inspired by the life of Bessie Coleman. 

In 1934, Brown began her flight instruction under the tutelage of Cornelius Coffey (whom she would later marry) and John Robinson—pioneer African American aviation educators. Brown  loved the pursuit of knowledge, and also earned a masters mechanic certificate from Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in 1935 and a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University in 1937. (The university was the first accredited flight school in the Midwest to accept Black students and instructors, but its openness to students of color only happened after after Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson threatened in the early 1930s to sue the school if they would not be granted admission.)

Students at the Coffey School of Aeronautics. (copyright Smithsonian)

In 1939, Brown married Cornelius Coffey, and they founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics. It was the first Black-owned private flight training school in the United States. Around this time, Brown became a co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America. The main goals of the association were to encourage African Americans to learn how to fly and advocate for desegregation in the armed forces as well as advocate to allow Black pilots in the military. During this time, Brown also purchased her own airplane.

In 1939, the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics received a franchise from the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Brown was named the coordinator for the CPTP program in Chicago. The Coffey School was not allowed to train Black pilots for the Army, but it was selected to provide African American trainees to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. “This program led to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen and Willa was directly responsible for training over 200 future Tuskegee Airmen and instructors,” according to an article at the National World War II Museum’s website. “Those who knew her said her education and no-nonsense attitude were legendary,” according to an article about Brown at the U.S. Civil Air Patrol’s website. “She was tough but fair. An excellent administrator and instructor, she challenged men much taller and significantly larger than her, encouraging them to get the task done because she took a keen interest in their success.”

In 1942, Brown became the first African American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP). She was commissioned a lieutenant, and she also served as the federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit. In 1943, Brown earned her mechanic’s license. She was the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license. After the war, Brown and her husband closed the Coffrey School of Aeronautics and were divorced.

copyright Smithsonian

In 1946, Brown became the first African-American woman to run for Congress, and ran again in 1948 and 1950. Although she lost all 3 times, she continued to be active in politics and fight for racial and gender equity—especially in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Brown and other racial equity advocates are credited with playing a major role in encouraging President Harry Truman to integrate the U.S. military in 1948. In 1955, Brown, married Reverend J.H. Chappell, the minister of the West Side Community Church in Chicago. She taught aeronautics at Westinghouse High School until the 1970s. In 1972, she was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board. Brown died on July 18, 1992, in Chicago.

Final Thoughts

Many other noteworthy African Americans are buried at Lincoln Cemetery, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, which many consider to be the most influential Black newspaper ever published; many African American musicians (including Gene “Jug” Ammons, Lillian Hardin “Lil” Armstrong, William “Big Bill” Broonzy, Jimmy Reed, and Jimmy Yancey); and victims of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. I had originally planned to write about many of these people in this article, but I soon realized that I would need to cover their stories in a separate article.

It’s become a cliché, but it’s true that African American history is American history—meaning all our history regardless of our racial or ethnic background. I encourage you to take the time to learn about these famous women and others who may not be on history’s front pages. Here are some additional resources that will allow you to learn more about Bessie Coleman, Janet Harmon Bragg, and Willa Brown.

Bessie Coleman

National Women’s History Museum-Bessie Coleman

Natural Resources Conservation Service-Women in History-Bessie Coleman 

American Experience-Women in American History-Bessie Coleman

Overlooked No More: Bessie Coleman, Pioneering African-American Aviatrix

The Official Website of Bessie Coleman

Janet Harmon Bragg

Janet Harmon Bragg: Female Aviator (includes video interview with her)

Janet Bragg, Nurse, Aviator and Businesswoman

Aviator Janet Harmon Bragg

Great Interview With Janet Harmon Bragg About Founding the First Black-Owned Airport and Other Topics

Janet Harmon Bragg (summary of a 1989 oral history by Joan Rogers, 1996)

Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)

Willa Brown

Lieutenant Willa Brown—Aviatrix, Maker of Pilots

Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell

Willa Brown Chappell

Willa Brown: Pioneer for Female & African American Aviation

Willa Brown

Copyright (text, except quoted material) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes, unless otherwise credited

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Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlightnewsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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