In the 1920s and ’30s, Chicago was home for the burgeoning Black aviation community, a place of opportunity that was central to Black exploration and innovation. The area was where many firsts were achieved, and remarkably, where some of the most influential Black pilots in history opened the first Black-owned airport.
This legacy started with the work of Bessie Coleman, who spent her short adulthood in Chicago. In 1921, Coleman became the first Black American woman to earn a pilot’s license. But because she was both Black and a woman, aviation schools in the U.S. wouldn’t admit her. Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott encouraged Coleman to go to France where she was accepted by the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation and graduated in a surprising seven months. She became known for her daring stunts and planned to open her own aviation school before her early death in a plane crash in 1926.
The Black men and women pilots who came after Coleman all attributed their work to her, explaining that they wanted to continue what she started. Two of these pilots, Cornelius Coffey and John Robinson, were highly skilled mechanics who were able to use their own knowledge of technology to teach, train, and further innovate the field of aviation. Coffey and Robinson met in Detroit and connected over their passion for aviation. After reading about the death of Bessie Coleman, the two were inspired to move to Chicago and apply to attend the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. They were the masterminds who built their own airport in south suburban Robbins with the help of Janet Harmon Bragg, the first Black woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license, and Willa Brown, the first Black woman to get both a pilot’s and commercial license. Both Bragg and Brown were trained by Coffey and Robinson, and became their colleagues.
This direct line between Black pilots continues from their work in aviation to the work Black Chicagoans would later do as astronauts and proponents of space exploration. In 1966, Robbins native Nichelle Nichols brought the character of Lieutenant Uhura to life in the show Star Trek — a role in which she became one of the first Black women with a lead role on TV, leading her to recruit women and astronauts of color for NASA. In 1967, Chicagoan Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. became the first Black astronaut when NASA selected him to be an aerospace research pilot. And in 1992, Chicagoan and astronaut Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to travel into space, crediting Nichols’ portrayal as her inspiration.
Ultimately, all of these Black Chicagoans joined Bessie Coleman’s mission, and there are Black science innovators who are still yet to come.
Arionne Nettles is a university lecturer, culture reporter, and audio aficionado. She is the author of We Are the Culture: Black Chicago’s Influence on Everything. Follow her @arionnenettles.