Flying Through the Open Doors: Willa Beatrice Brown
The Tuskegee Airmen also owed a debt to Willa Beatrice Brown, one of two women in the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association, founded in 1935. Brown was one of about 100 licensed black pilots in the entire country. She also became the first African-American woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
An expert in business administration and public relations and a dedicated aviator, Brown played a critical role in promoting the image of black aviators to help fight racial prejudice and expand opportunities for all blacks. She became chair of the association's education committee and appeared in the offices of the Chicago Defender, the famed black paper of the era, to convince the paper to cover the association's air shows.
Enoch Waters, one of the paper's editors, visited an air show and became so impressed with the talent he saw that the Defender became a sponsor of the association. The paper, because of Brown's appeal, also began covering all aspects of black aviation, and soon other black papers followed suit, especially the influential Pittsburgh Courier.
Because several American black aviators had gone to fight the Italian fascists in Ethiopia in 1935, national interest in black pilots had increased. Brown exploited the growing fame of black pilots and helped organize Chicago's National Airmen's Association of America in 1937, which chartered branches across the country (except in the Deep South).
Without Brown's work, African-American interest in aviation could have languished.
When black activists urged Truman to desegregate the military in 1948, they could point to the heroism of the "Red Tails" pilots to prove that black servicemen had earned the equal treatment that they deserved as loyal Americans. But without the bold imagination of Mary McLeod Bethune, the persistent advocacy of Willa Beatrice Brown and the sheer stubbornness of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, it is doubtful that Tuskegee Airmen
would have come into being.
And while I found the depiction of the relationship between one of the airmen and his Italian fiancée quite touching (in a nod to a similar romance depicted in Spike Lee's Miracle at Santa Ana), it is a pity that the contributions of these three women -- two black, one white -- couldn't have been called up to frame the action of this very important film.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and editor-in-chief of The Root.