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From Riots to Renaissance

Black Chicago is synonymous with jazz and the blues, but few know about the city’s courageous black pilots who changed aviation history. When flying was still a novelty, these men and women took to the skies and in the process helped open the door for blacks to train and fly as pilots in World War II.

Chicago’s significant role in the black aviation movement began with two eager, young men who shared a passion for flying. In the 1920s, Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson met in Detroit, Michigan, where they were working as auto mechanics. Both men wanted to learn to fly and both were inspired by pioneering, Chicago aviatrix Bessie Coleman who overcame racial and sexual barriers to become a licensed pilot. They applied to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago and were accepted. However, upon learning that the two mechanics were black, the school revoked their admission.

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