Cornelius Coffey opened up doors to African-Americans who wanted to learn how to fly planes. He was the first Black man to create a non-university affiliated aeronautical school in the United States. He was also the first African-American to hold both a pilot and mechanic’s license.
Cornelius R. Coffey was born in Newport (Jackson County) on September 6, 1903, to Henry Coffey and Ida Wright Coffey. In 1916, Coffey had his first experience riding in an aircraft and was convinced that aviation was his calling.
Coffey worked along with a good friend, John C. Robinson, to form the Challenger Air Pilots Association. Coffey and Robinson decided to enroll in the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics. Although the school accepted them, after they arrived on the first day, they were dismissed because of race. They later sued the school and won their case.
Coffey then opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Robbins, Illinois, with Willa Brown, an instructor who helped train black pilots, including some of the Tuskegee Airmen. After World War II, he taught aeronautics at the Lewis Holy Name School of Aeronautics in Romeoville, Illinois, and at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago.
Coffey received the Dwight H. Green Trophy in 1941. He was also honored with a day by the City of Chicago on July 22, 1980. He was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984.