This week’s Historical Treasure at the Vigo County Historical Museum is the Indiana State University Distinguished Alumni Medallion presented to educator, civil rights pioneer, aviator and politician Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell (1906-1992).
For her life of service to the community and the advancement of the ideals of the University, Chappell was posthumously awarded the medal in 2009.
In recent years, much has been written about this aviation pioneer. However, until recently not much has been written about her life in Terre Haute — as opposed to her time in Chicago.
In 1915, the same year of the death of Booker T. Washington who had founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the Browns moved with their four children from her birthplace of Glasgow, Kentucky, to Terre Haute, the Rev. Eric and Hallie Mae citing the fact that the upper level schools in Terre Haute were integrated as one of the primary reasons for the move.
Establishing residence on South 13 1/2th Street in the area of the city known as Little Baghdad, due the predominance of people of color in the neighborhood, young Willa attended Sara Scott Middle School then Wiley High School, graduating from the latter in 1923. She soon matriculated to Indiana State Normal School (a school opened to African Americans since its inception) majoring in business education.
In 1927, equipped with her bachelor’s degree, this born educator taught business at Roosevelt High School in Gary before joining the Chicago Public Schools. Here, she began taking flying lessons as a hobby, but it grew serious, so much so that in 1938 and 1939, she would make history when she became the first Black woman to earn private and commercial pilot’s licenses in the United States respectively. (Aviatrix Betsy Coleman earned her licenses in France). Not one to rest on her laurels, Chappell made it her life’s mission to teach others to fly, so she and her aviation-instructor-turned-husband established in Chicago the first Black-owned — and unsegregated — aviation school in the nation.
During WWII, she advocated tirelessly for African Americans to be admitted into the Army Air Corps (Air Force). Her advocacy was rewarded when Black men became a part of a special pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute in the 1940s. Remarkably, about 200 of the men selected for the Tuskegee program had been personally trained by her.
In the 1950s, Chappell once again broke new ground when she became the first Black woman to run for Congress (Illinois). Twice unsuccessful, she returned to teaching aeronautics and business in the Chicago Public Schools to countless young minds and future pilots for several decades.
In belated recognition for her groundbreaking career, Chappell was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Medal (ISU) 17 years after her death at age 86. The 3-inch silver medallion contains the seal of the university and is encased in a mahogany case. The ISU Alumni Association has been awarding the medal to worthy alumni since 1957. The medal is on loan at the Vigo County History Center courtesy of the Brown family and will be displayed through October 2021.
The Vigo County History Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Visit www.vchsmuseum.org/ or call 812-235-9717 for information on admission tickets, upcoming events, and membership.
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