This book is dedicated to Connie Gipson, who started me on this journey. Beginning as an interesting assignment to write and produce the documentary film, Willa Beatrice Brown: An American Aviator evolved into a mission to preserve a piece of history vanishing as I discovered it.
In 1995, when I began my research, Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey and Johnny Robinson were already deceased. I was fortunate to meet eight fascinating aviation pioneers who were integral to the activities at Robbins Field, Harlem Airfield and the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Harold Hurd, Chauncey Spencer, Simeon Brown, Lola Jones Peppers, Marie St. Clair, Quinton Smith, Walter Sedgewick and Glenn Cartwright had been students, friends and associates of our main characters. In their late 80s to mid 90s, they graciously invited me into their homes and showed me their treasured photo albums, relating memories of depression-era life and the aviation craze in the 1930s, photo by photo. I shared photos with them from other sources, which elicited additional recollections.
I gathered much more material than I could possibly use in a half-hour documentary. Sadly, by the time the program was broadcast, all eight had passed, and it weighed on me that I might be the only person who could connect all their stories.
One special find did emerge from the secondary interviews. Joy Murff, Willa’s niece, had written to Willa asking permission to write about her life. Willa replied that if a story were written, it should focus on the good parts, like a romantic adventure.
From the interviews, news clippings, handwritten personal accounts, historical records, and photo albums, I prepared a timeline of what the main actors were doing, and when. In Enoch Waters’ memoir, he recalls meeting Willa Brown at the Chicago Defender’s office. That encounter is adapted and repeated in this telling. The memoirs of Janet Harmon Waterford and Chauncey Spencer confirmed events, chronology and relationships. Robert Jakeman’s Divided Skies, a history of aviation at Tuskegee Institute, and the Smithsonian publication, Black Wings, confirmed the historical importance of the Chicago aviators. There were many other sources, but even with all that to draw from, significant gaps remained in the story since nobody had been alongside Willa, Coffey, and Johnny all the time.
The narrative for the most part has been woven from the interviews with the eight pioneer aviators. Fortunately, success didn’t happen without unexpected detours and consequences, and for me the lack of a neat narrative arc allowed for storytelling latitude. In between well-documented historical events, characters and incidents had to come into existence entirely imagined. I switched the chronology of several sequences to fit within the dramatic arc. A photo of Joe Lewis, the reigning Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, appearing bewildered, standing with Willa Brown at one of her aircraft engine mechanic classes, provided enough of a moment to become an entire chapter.
My sincerest thanks to Carlos Rene Perez, Dan Bessie, Adrienne Mayor, Marcia Ober, Carol Annette Perez and Sara Bleick for their extensive and supportive notes.
And of course, I am profoundly indebted to my wife, Judith Schiffer Perez, for her love and encouragement and for editing far too many drafts of the manuscript.