Last year, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was honored with an exhibit at Chicago O’Hare, marking 100 years since the late aviatrix obtained her international pilot’s license—becoming the first African-American woman to do so. But while Coleman looms large in Black history and Black Chicago, two little-known Chicago auto mechanics-turned-aviators—inspired by her story— launched the country’s first Black-owned airport. Along the way, they paved the way for Black aviators, including the Tuskegee Airmen.

Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson were working in Detroit for an automobile company when they saw a newspaper headline noting that Coleman had died in a plane crash. “‘Why can’t a Black man fly a plane, too?’ they asked. And so they decided to pick up where she left off,” began Tyrone Haymore, a historian and curator at Robbins Historical Society & Museum, located just outside of Chicago.

Born in the Deep South in the early 1900s, Coffey, who graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1920, and Robinson followed a familiar northward path of the Great Migration. The men headed to Detroit and then Chicago, having applied to Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University to make their aviation dream a reality.

But when they arrived at the school, they were turned away, according to Haymore. Coffey filed a lawsuit, alleging discrimination, while Robinson took a job as a Curtiss-Wright janitor, peering into classes and rummaging through trash while piecing together class notes that had been tossed.

Haymore, a South Side native, learned about this history firsthand from Coffey during the 1980s. Coffey passed away in 1994 but for his final decade of life, Haymore said, the two would get together every other week. Haymore grew up around the same area near the 4000 block of South Indiana Avenue where Coffey and Robinson set up their auto shop to make extra cash. 

At that auto shop, Coffey and Robinson eventually ordered a Heath Parasol, a build-it-yourself airplane that arrived in their garage for $300—the equivalent of about $3,000 in today’s dollars, Haymore said. The other critical part of the plane—the motor—cost an additional $300, which they could not afford. So they put together the plane and rolled the dice with another kind of engine.

John C. Robinson
John C. Robinson, courtesy of Tyrone Haymore
Cornelius Coffey
Cornelius Coffey, courtesy of Tyrone Haymore

“Robinson looked through the airplane manual, and noticed that the specifications for the engine matched up almost identically with the engine that powers a motorcycle. And he just happened to have a motorcycle. So what do you think he did?” Haymore asked.

A bewildered Curtiss-Wright instructor caught wind of their project, and wanted to meet the two young Black men intending to take to the skies with no experience. The three ferried the plane to a grassy field in Washington Park, where the plane took off and flew perfectly. After that, Coffey and Robinson were admitted to Curtiss-Wright as night students, graduating within a year. 

The next step for the aviators was to expand their operations to make good on Coleman’s dream. In 1931, they formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association for Black pilots. They needed an airport, but when that idea was not well-received within Chicago city limits, they took their talents to Robbins, Illinois—an all-Black town whose mayor, Samuel Nichols, embraced them. Nichols’ daughter, Nichelle Nichols, went on to become an actress on the TV series Star Trek, portraying Lt. Uhura.

Volunteer laborers immediately began clearing trees and removing boulders, eventually building a hangar from stray lumber. Robbins Airport opened on 14046 S. Lawndale Ave. in 1931. The early Challenger Air Pilots Association included a dozen or so Black men and women, including Janet Bragg, a Spelman graduate and nurse; and Willa Brown, who was enrolled in a master’s degree program at Northwestern University.

Janet Bragg
Janet Bragg, courtesy of Tyrone Haymore

“These women were the first two people that Coffey and Robinson taught to fly,” Haymore said. Bragg and her husband were able to purchase two airplanes for Robbins Airport. Brown, who was working at a Walgreens cafe at the time, was brought into the enterprise when she overheard Coffey and Robinson talking about aviation, Haymore said.

A violent windstorm destroyed Robbins Airport in 1933—but this act of destruction actually began new chapters for Coffey and Robinson. Coffey and Brown established the Coffey School of Aeronautics in 1938 on Harlem Avenue in an area of what is now known as Bridgeview. The school’s cafe, a haven from dealing with discrimination at local restaurants, was operated by a certain civil-rights figure.

“Willa Brown was so busy operating the school. So she hired a young teenager to operate the cafe. That woman was Mamie Till,” Haymore said.

As for Robinson, the more adventurous of the two, he ultimately ended up far beyond Chicago in Ethiopia, where he helped train Haile Selassie’s pilots in their ongoing conflict with Italy. Robinson died in that African country in 1954, earning the nickname “Brown Condor” for his service.

Umberto Ricco, a longtime aircraft mechanic, is also adamant about preserving and honoring this history. More than 1,500 students graduated from the Coffey School and many of them went on to fly for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. 

“The HBCUs—Howard, Hampton and Tuskegee—were teaching basic flying then. But the program here in Chicago went into the advanced courses—everything you needed to know to become a military cadet,” Ricco explained, adding that while he was always aware of the Tuskegee Airmen, it wasn’t until he went to the Smithsonian and pored over Coffey’s interviews that he began to understand the full scope of Black aviation history.

Today, Ricco runs Coffey School of Aeronautics NEXT, an after-school program for students in Chicago Public Schools that aims to continue to honor Coffey’s legacy. Coffey himself taught in many vocational high schools throughout Chicago. 

“There are some incredible pilots that owe their career to Mr. Coffey,” added Haymore. “Did I even mention that he was the inventor of the carburetor heater for airplanes that prevented icing? He could have been a multimillionaire. But he wasn’t about that.”

Currently, 3.9 percent of pilots and aircraft engineers in the U.S. aviation industry are Black, according to the 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the legacies of Chicago pioneers Coffey and Robinson remind many that Black Americans also have a place in aviation.

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE. He's also a staff writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He’s also written for outlets CBS News, Newsweek, PBS, Mic, and The Rumpus, and blogs about film, television, and the majestic NBA on his own website,