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American Wings

Chicago's Pioneering Black Aviators and the Race for Equality in the Sky

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Hardcover
$19.99 US
6.19"W x 9.25"H x 1.21"D  
On sale Jan 16, 2024 | 384 Pages | 978-0-593-32398-4
| Grade 7 & Up
Reading Level: Lexile 1210L
From the acclaimed author of Flygirl and the bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes the thrilling and inspiring true story of the desegregation of the skies.

“This beautiful and brilliant history of not only what it means to be Black and dream of flying but to, against every odd, do so, completely blew me away.” —Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

In the years between World War I and World War II, aviation fever was everywhere, including among Black Americans. But what hope did a Black person have of learning to fly in a country constricted by prejudice and Jim Crow laws, where Black aviators like Bessie Coleman had to move to France to earn their wings?

American Wings follows a group of determined Black Americans: Cornelius Coffey and Johnny Robinson, skilled auto mechanics; Janet Harmon Bragg, a nurse; and Willa Brown, a teacher and social worker. Together, they created a flying club and built their own airfield south of Chicago. As the U.S. hurtled toward World War II, they established a school to train new pilots, teaching both Black and white students together and proving, in a time when the U.S. military was still segregated, that successful integration was possible.

Featuring rare historical photographs, American Wings brings to light a hidden history of pioneering Black men and women who, with grit and resilience, battled powerful odds for an equal share of the sky.
© Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith is not a pilot, but she makes an excellent passenger (unless it’s a very small plane). She is the author of numerous acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books for young people, including Flygirl, the winner of the California Book Awards’ Gold Medal; The Blossom and the Firefly, the winner of the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Orleans; and Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? She teaches creative writing at Hamline University. Born in Chicago, Sherri now lives in Los Angeles. Learn more at SherriLSmith.com and follow her on Twitter @Sherri_L_Smith. View titles by Sherri L. Smith
© David Ho
Elizabeth Wein is a recreational pilot and the owner of about a thousand maps. She is the author of several young adult novels, including Code Name Verity, an Edgar Award winner and a #1 New York Times bestseller; Black Dove, White Raven, winner of the Children’s Africana Book Award; and most recently, Stateless. Her book A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II was a finalist for YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. A dual American-British citizen, Elizabeth lives in Scotland. Learn more at ElizabethWein.com and follow her on Twitter @EWein2412. View titles by Elizabeth Wein
PROLOGUE

A Dream Takes Flight

Omaha, Nebraska, 1919

It was going to cost three dollars to ride—about $50 in 2023, but the work of several days, or even weeks, in 1919. Cornelius Robinson Coffey had the money from his side job running special deliveries for the Omaha post office. But the rule was white people first. He stood aside with the other onlookers in the cold Nebraska field and waited his turn, his eyes on the January sky.

Overhead, an airplane buzzed, boldly announcing man’s dominion over the air.

Aviation was a fairly new craze, the Wright brothers having made their first flight barely fifteen years earlier, on December 17, 1903. But it hadn’t taken long for the world to turn the airplane into a weapon of war. Today’s barnstormer—one of those pilots who staged air shows in farmers’ fields, selling tickets for quick plane rides and setting up shop in local barns—was a World War I veteran, recently home from Europe since the end of the Great War in 1918. Even the barnstormer’s plane was a veteran of sorts. His Curtiss JN-4, a type nicknamed the Jenny, was one of the little two-seater biplanes that had been used to train American men to fly for the war effort.

White American men, that is.

Born on September 6, 1903, Coffey—as most people would call him in later years—was Black. And at only fifteen years old, he was the same age as the entire field of modern aviation. His home state of Nebraska had been a hub of aviation activity from the start, with the Wright brothers performing at the State Fair in Omaha in 1910.

While the Midwest wasn’t the Deep South, segregation and racism still held sway. White customers went first. After waiting patiently for his turn to come, Coffey finally fished out the price for his first ride in a genuine airplane.

The pilot must have been astonished. This Black boy had the gall and the money to take a ride in the sky. The barnstormer turned to the other onlookers—undoubtedly white people—and said, “When I get through with him, that kid ain’t going to even look at another airplane.”

But Coffey’s money was green, so the man took it, and let the boy climb up into the plane. The Jenny was built of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, a single-engine biplane with stacked wings and two open cockpits, one behind the other. Coffey most likely rode in the front cockpit, where the pilot could keep an eye on him.

The little wood-and-fabric Jenny rattled down the field and leapt up into the air.

In those days, there was hardly anyplace you could get a really smooth ride. Outside the city, scarcely any roads were paved. Inside the city, they were often paved with cobblestones, with embedded trolley tracks an extra hazard. Coffey knew what speed was like—he rode a Henderson motorcycle. But the silken speed of flight was something he could never have imagined. From the moment the Jenny’s wheels left the ground, he loved it. It didn’t bother him in the least that the pilot was doing his darnedest to scare the living wits out of the uppity little Black kid with his pocket money and his belief that he should beallowed to fly.

Everyone said Black people weren’t made for flying. People said they were cowards. They were lazy. It took brains and guts to be a pilot.

But this kid seemed to have both.

With every loop and dive, Coffey just had more fun. The pilot upped his game, tilting the plane into rolls and spins. He might have even scared himself a little, flying upside down, or nosing the plane into a dive, only pulling up in the nick of time to skim the treetops.

“I think it was rougher on him than on me,” Coffey said calmly afterward.

Three dollars bought fifteen minutes of thrills in the sky, and when they landed, the pilot had to admit he was impressed.

“Well, you know, if I was going to be here for any length of time, I’d probably teach you to fly,” he told the boy.

Coffey had the feel for it, no doubt. But everyone knew Black people couldn’t learn to fly. Cornelius Coffey had likely been told that, too.

So he hopped back onto his Henderson motorcycle and headed home. He wouldn’t come near another plane for nearly a decade.

But when the time came, he would prove just how wrong everyone had been.
Educator Guide for American Wings

Classroom-based guides appropriate for schools and colleges provide pre-reading and classroom activities, discussion questions connected to the curriculum, further reading, and resources.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise for American Wings:

* “A wonderfully detailed and evocative review of the true story of four Black Americans between the world wars who pioneered aviation in spite of many obstacles placed in their paths . . . A vivid and accurate recounting of the struggles and triumphs of the desegregation of ­Chicago aviation. The lengthy end notes, bibliography, and substantial authors’ note underscore the level of research completed. ­Fans of the authors’ previous books will appreciate this nonfiction title, as will fans of aviation ­history.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Accessible and buoyant . . . A fascinating, well-told American story full of compelling innovation.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Essential and richly informative . . . Inspirational singular stories feature famous names and institutions such as the Tuskegee Airmen, b&w archival photographs imbue the historical narrative with contemporary-feeling familiarity, and nail-biting tales of flights gone wrong add verve, making for an exciting and richly rendered addition to the history of Black aviation.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] thorough and absorbingly written history of the early days of aviation.” —The Horn Book

“An enlightening account of notable Black American aviators and the issues that they confronted during their careers.” —Booklist

“Thoroughly researched . . . This comprehensive look at an unsung piece of aviation history will be an excellent resource, capped with a wealth of back matter that includes sources, quotes, and an index.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

“This beautiful and brilliant history of not only what it means to be Black and dream of flying but to, against every odd, do so, completely blew me away. Kudos to Smith and Wein for believing in the importance of history and passing it on.” —Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

“A barnstorming, barrel-rolling, loop-the-loop history of the Black American pilots who defied racism and gravity in equal measure. American Wings soars!” —Alan Gratz, New York Times bestselling author of Refugee
 
“A fascinating, well-researched history of the birth of Black aviation in the twentieth century. Smith and Wein have perfectly captured the challenging and thrilling journeys of these inspiring aviators from Chicago. I loved every page.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
 
“Smith and Wein pack this story with daring aerial adventures and pilots whose love of flying and refusal to be denied practically soar off the page!” —Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award Finalist Bomb

“Hidden within a romp about daring-do aviators is the story of America: the barriers it created for some of its citizens, the people who worked to tear them down, and how the country was propelled toward equal rights for all.” –Monica Hesse, bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat

“Thanks to Smith and Wein’s eye-opening, page-turning, often disquieting, but always compelling narrative, we can now return these remarkable, long unsung African American aviation pioneers to our collective American memory where they’ve always belonged.” —Candace Fleming, author of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction

About

From the acclaimed author of Flygirl and the bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes the thrilling and inspiring true story of the desegregation of the skies.

“This beautiful and brilliant history of not only what it means to be Black and dream of flying but to, against every odd, do so, completely blew me away.” —Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

In the years between World War I and World War II, aviation fever was everywhere, including among Black Americans. But what hope did a Black person have of learning to fly in a country constricted by prejudice and Jim Crow laws, where Black aviators like Bessie Coleman had to move to France to earn their wings?

American Wings follows a group of determined Black Americans: Cornelius Coffey and Johnny Robinson, skilled auto mechanics; Janet Harmon Bragg, a nurse; and Willa Brown, a teacher and social worker. Together, they created a flying club and built their own airfield south of Chicago. As the U.S. hurtled toward World War II, they established a school to train new pilots, teaching both Black and white students together and proving, in a time when the U.S. military was still segregated, that successful integration was possible.

Featuring rare historical photographs, American Wings brings to light a hidden history of pioneering Black men and women who, with grit and resilience, battled powerful odds for an equal share of the sky.

Author

© Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith is not a pilot, but she makes an excellent passenger (unless it’s a very small plane). She is the author of numerous acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books for young people, including Flygirl, the winner of the California Book Awards’ Gold Medal; The Blossom and the Firefly, the winner of the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Orleans; and Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? She teaches creative writing at Hamline University. Born in Chicago, Sherri now lives in Los Angeles. Learn more at SherriLSmith.com and follow her on Twitter @Sherri_L_Smith. View titles by Sherri L. Smith
© David Ho
Elizabeth Wein is a recreational pilot and the owner of about a thousand maps. She is the author of several young adult novels, including Code Name Verity, an Edgar Award winner and a #1 New York Times bestseller; Black Dove, White Raven, winner of the Children’s Africana Book Award; and most recently, Stateless. Her book A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II was a finalist for YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. A dual American-British citizen, Elizabeth lives in Scotland. Learn more at ElizabethWein.com and follow her on Twitter @EWein2412. View titles by Elizabeth Wein

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

A Dream Takes Flight

Omaha, Nebraska, 1919

It was going to cost three dollars to ride—about $50 in 2023, but the work of several days, or even weeks, in 1919. Cornelius Robinson Coffey had the money from his side job running special deliveries for the Omaha post office. But the rule was white people first. He stood aside with the other onlookers in the cold Nebraska field and waited his turn, his eyes on the January sky.

Overhead, an airplane buzzed, boldly announcing man’s dominion over the air.

Aviation was a fairly new craze, the Wright brothers having made their first flight barely fifteen years earlier, on December 17, 1903. But it hadn’t taken long for the world to turn the airplane into a weapon of war. Today’s barnstormer—one of those pilots who staged air shows in farmers’ fields, selling tickets for quick plane rides and setting up shop in local barns—was a World War I veteran, recently home from Europe since the end of the Great War in 1918. Even the barnstormer’s plane was a veteran of sorts. His Curtiss JN-4, a type nicknamed the Jenny, was one of the little two-seater biplanes that had been used to train American men to fly for the war effort.

White American men, that is.

Born on September 6, 1903, Coffey—as most people would call him in later years—was Black. And at only fifteen years old, he was the same age as the entire field of modern aviation. His home state of Nebraska had been a hub of aviation activity from the start, with the Wright brothers performing at the State Fair in Omaha in 1910.

While the Midwest wasn’t the Deep South, segregation and racism still held sway. White customers went first. After waiting patiently for his turn to come, Coffey finally fished out the price for his first ride in a genuine airplane.

The pilot must have been astonished. This Black boy had the gall and the money to take a ride in the sky. The barnstormer turned to the other onlookers—undoubtedly white people—and said, “When I get through with him, that kid ain’t going to even look at another airplane.”

But Coffey’s money was green, so the man took it, and let the boy climb up into the plane. The Jenny was built of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, a single-engine biplane with stacked wings and two open cockpits, one behind the other. Coffey most likely rode in the front cockpit, where the pilot could keep an eye on him.

The little wood-and-fabric Jenny rattled down the field and leapt up into the air.

In those days, there was hardly anyplace you could get a really smooth ride. Outside the city, scarcely any roads were paved. Inside the city, they were often paved with cobblestones, with embedded trolley tracks an extra hazard. Coffey knew what speed was like—he rode a Henderson motorcycle. But the silken speed of flight was something he could never have imagined. From the moment the Jenny’s wheels left the ground, he loved it. It didn’t bother him in the least that the pilot was doing his darnedest to scare the living wits out of the uppity little Black kid with his pocket money and his belief that he should beallowed to fly.

Everyone said Black people weren’t made for flying. People said they were cowards. They were lazy. It took brains and guts to be a pilot.

But this kid seemed to have both.

With every loop and dive, Coffey just had more fun. The pilot upped his game, tilting the plane into rolls and spins. He might have even scared himself a little, flying upside down, or nosing the plane into a dive, only pulling up in the nick of time to skim the treetops.

“I think it was rougher on him than on me,” Coffey said calmly afterward.

Three dollars bought fifteen minutes of thrills in the sky, and when they landed, the pilot had to admit he was impressed.

“Well, you know, if I was going to be here for any length of time, I’d probably teach you to fly,” he told the boy.

Coffey had the feel for it, no doubt. But everyone knew Black people couldn’t learn to fly. Cornelius Coffey had likely been told that, too.

So he hopped back onto his Henderson motorcycle and headed home. He wouldn’t come near another plane for nearly a decade.

But when the time came, he would prove just how wrong everyone had been.

Guides

Educator Guide for American Wings

Classroom-based guides appropriate for schools and colleges provide pre-reading and classroom activities, discussion questions connected to the curriculum, further reading, and resources.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise

Praise for American Wings:

* “A wonderfully detailed and evocative review of the true story of four Black Americans between the world wars who pioneered aviation in spite of many obstacles placed in their paths . . . A vivid and accurate recounting of the struggles and triumphs of the desegregation of ­Chicago aviation. The lengthy end notes, bibliography, and substantial authors’ note underscore the level of research completed. ­Fans of the authors’ previous books will appreciate this nonfiction title, as will fans of aviation ­history.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Accessible and buoyant . . . A fascinating, well-told American story full of compelling innovation.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Essential and richly informative . . . Inspirational singular stories feature famous names and institutions such as the Tuskegee Airmen, b&w archival photographs imbue the historical narrative with contemporary-feeling familiarity, and nail-biting tales of flights gone wrong add verve, making for an exciting and richly rendered addition to the history of Black aviation.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] thorough and absorbingly written history of the early days of aviation.” —The Horn Book

“An enlightening account of notable Black American aviators and the issues that they confronted during their careers.” —Booklist

“Thoroughly researched . . . This comprehensive look at an unsung piece of aviation history will be an excellent resource, capped with a wealth of back matter that includes sources, quotes, and an index.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

“This beautiful and brilliant history of not only what it means to be Black and dream of flying but to, against every odd, do so, completely blew me away. Kudos to Smith and Wein for believing in the importance of history and passing it on.” —Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

“A barnstorming, barrel-rolling, loop-the-loop history of the Black American pilots who defied racism and gravity in equal measure. American Wings soars!” —Alan Gratz, New York Times bestselling author of Refugee
 
“A fascinating, well-researched history of the birth of Black aviation in the twentieth century. Smith and Wein have perfectly captured the challenging and thrilling journeys of these inspiring aviators from Chicago. I loved every page.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
 
“Smith and Wein pack this story with daring aerial adventures and pilots whose love of flying and refusal to be denied practically soar off the page!” —Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award Finalist Bomb

“Hidden within a romp about daring-do aviators is the story of America: the barriers it created for some of its citizens, the people who worked to tear them down, and how the country was propelled toward equal rights for all.” –Monica Hesse, bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat

“Thanks to Smith and Wein’s eye-opening, page-turning, often disquieting, but always compelling narrative, we can now return these remarkable, long unsung African American aviation pioneers to our collective American memory where they’ve always belonged.” —Candace Fleming, author of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction

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