Review of American Wings: Chicago’s Pioneering Black Aviators and the Race for Equality in the Sky

American Wings: Chicago’s Pioneering Black Aviators and the Race for Equality in the SkyAmerican Wings: Chicago’s Pioneering Black Aviators and the Race for Equality in the Sky
by Sherri L. Smith and Elizabeth Wein
Middle School, High School    Putnam    384 pp.
1/24    9780593323984    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780593324004    $11.99

Smith (The Blossom and the Firefly, rev. 3/20) and Wein (Stateless, rev. 3/23) introduce readers to the Black men and women who fought to desegregate aviation. The book opens in 1919 with fifteen-year-old Cornelius Coffey attempting to take his first plane ride at an air show in Nebraska. The pilot reluctantly takes the young Black man up and tries to discourage him with daredevil antics—but Coffey loves it and knows he wants to fly. Fast forward: Coffey meets Johnny Robinson, a Black mechanic who also longs to be a pilot. The two move to Chicago and apply to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. They are accepted—but then not allowed to enroll after the school finds out they are Black. Following much struggle, Coffey and Robinson are admitted in 1929 and complete their course. With two other young Black aspiring pilots, Janet Harmon Bragg and Willa Brown, they open an aviation school for Black students. Along with the experiences of each individual pilot, there is also a thorough discussion of the historical context surrounding them, including the Great Depression and WWII. Photographs of Coffey, Robinson, Harmon Bragg, and Brown appear throughout the text. An authors’ note explains the research process, and source notes are provided for this thorough and absorbingly written history of the early days of aviation.

From the January/February 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Nicholl Denice Montgomery

Nicholl Denice Montgomery is currently working on a PhD at Boston College in the curriculum and instruction department. Previously, she worked as an English teacher with Boston Public Schools.

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