Indiana State’s story is best told through its graduates and faculty. Here is one of a dozen people who exemplifies the university’s key qualities.
As a pilot, Willa Brown Chappell soared to great heights and became an inspiration for others to achieve lofty goals. A 1927 Indiana State graduate, Chappell was passionate about aviation, but such an ambition seemed out of her reach in the 1930s.
“Becoming an aviator was extraordinarily difficult for a woman, let alone an African American woman,” said Ann Short Chirhart, professor of history at Indiana State.
Undeterred, Chappell took lessons from Lt. Cornelius Robinson Coffey, an African American aviator who established a black aviation school in Chicago. In 1938, Chappell became the first African American woman to receive a pilot’s license in the United States.
Chappell and Coffey married in 1939, when she was still referred to as Brown. The couple made Chicago a center for training black pilots, both men and women. Chappell also helped organize the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939, an organization that fought for black aviation cadets in the U.S. military.
“This was no easy task because black men were believed to be incapable of flying,” Chirhart said. “Women were not perceived as fit for military work at all … Later, her Chicago aviation school was selected as a training school for black men who were chosen to become the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Chappell continued her activism for African Americans when she became the first black woman to run for Congress in 1946, 1948 and 1950, although she never won.
She married Rev. Chappell in 1955 and taught in Chicago public schools in 1971. She died in 1992.
“The achievements of Willa Brown were remarkable,” Chirhart said. “She was quite an amazing person.”