Community Voices

Aviation pioneers honored for achieving their dreams

Sheila L. Chamberlain, Spelman College Class of 1981, the U.S. Army’s first black woman combat intelligence pilot with portrait of herself 
as a pilot in an exhibit sponsored by the Miramar Cultural Trust.
Sheila L. Chamberlain, Spelman College Class of 1981, the U.S. Army’s first black woman combat intelligence pilot with portrait of herself as a pilot in an exhibit sponsored by the Miramar Cultural Trust.

With courage and persistence, dreams can come true. On Sunday, the South Florida chapter of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College will honor alumnae and community leaders in aviation and aeronautics, career fields that have not traditionally been available to black people or women.

The annual alumnae association scholarship fundraiser is titled “All That Jazz” and will feature live entertainment, full buffet, and a silent auction raise to raise money to help students attending a Historically Black College (HBCU) achieve their higher education goals. Open the public, tickets and information are available at

This year, awards will be given at Club Tropical Ballroom in Hallandale to Spelman College alumnae and community honorees in aviation and aeronautics, career fields that have not traditionally been available to black people or women.

The achievements of 2018 honorees are recognized as standing on the shoulders of those who came before and paved the way for them.

Within the past 100 years, aviation pioneers Bessie Coleman, William Powell, Willa Brown, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson Benjamin O. Davis, Chappie James, the Tuskegee Airmen and others overcame challenges to participate in aviation.

During the first half of the 20th century, aviation as a career was unknown to black people because of racial segregation, or to women because of gender bias.

Bessie Coleman, then a black teenager in Texas, heard stories about World War I pilots and decided she wanted to fly, too. At that time schools that taught flying in the USA did not allow blacks to take classes. Determined to overcome that barrier Coleman studied French and traveled to France to study aviation.

In 1921, Coleman earned her pilot’s license in France at the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. That was the same year Amelia Earhart began taking flying lessons.

Coleman was the first woman from in the United States to obtain a pilot’s license and in 1922 became the first black woman in the USA to pilot a plane.

Coleman’s plans to establish a school, to train young black men to fly, ended when she died at 34 in a 1926 airplane accident. Although her career as a pilot was short lived, her achievements in aviation continue to inspire succeeding generations.

Spelman.SoFL  Chpt.2017.asset-1465788821234.jpg
The National Alumnae Association of Spelman College, South Florida chapter. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Some of the most accomplished aviation honorees live in South Florida and will be recognized at Sunday’s event. Three are Spelman Alumnae:

  • Sheila Chamberlain, a magna cum laude honors graduate from Spelman College, Class of 1981. She became the U.S. Army’s first black female combat intelligence pilot four years later. She earned her juris doctor from the University of Miami School of Law in 1996. She became the first woman pilot elected to the National Tuskegee Airmen in 1998 and later served as its National Parliamentarian. She is a National Aviation and Aerospace Pioneer and Hall of Famer.

  • Lt. Commander (Sel.) La’Shanda Holmes graduated from Spelman College in 2007. She is the first black woman U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot and a former White House fellow. While at Spelman, she became interested in the Coast Guard while volunteering at a career fair. The culmination of her years of hard work were realized when she received her wings at graduation. Pinning her was Lt. Jeannie Menze, the Coast Guard’s first black aviator.

  • Erika Marshall, a 2001 Spelman graduate. She is program director and general manager of Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), Navigation, Surveillance & Unmanned (NSU) Systems and C6ISR - Rotary & Mission Systems (RMS) at Lockheed Martin Corp.

Marshall works with government and civil customers worldwide. Within Lockheed Martin, she is the first woman, first black and youngest general manager for Lockheed Martin’s Palm Beach operations.

Community honorees who will be recognized for their outstanding accomplishments in aviation and aeronautics:

  • Barrington Irving. In 2007, he became the youngest person to pilot a plane around the world. He is also the first black pilot to navigate around the world. A graduate of Florida Memorial University, he established Experience Aviation in 2006, to provide programs for students interested in STEM careers including aviation.

  • Darrell Roberts. Operation SAFEE Flight was established by Roberts, a retired Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) technical director at Miami International Airport air control tower. Operation SAFEE Flight engages the South Florida aviation community in its annual two-day air expo, which attracts over 6,000 youth, adults and educators. It provides exposure for students to explore many opportunities in the aviation field.

  • Arlander “Duff” Barker, Miami chapter president of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of black aviation crew members including pilots, navigators, mechanics and instructors who served in the military since World War II. After their service they returned or relocated to South Florida. This is one of 55 chapters nationwide with the mission to honor the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and to use that legacy to motivate youth through public speaking, mentoring young persons and annual scholarships.

Barker, is an FAA Safety Inspector. As a child in the 1950s, he was” fascinated with airplane instrument panels and the pilot’s work” and dreamed about one day being associated with aviation. Originally from Chicago, after training, working in the field military service, he relocated to South Florida and met one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Retired Lt. Col. Leo Gray, who fought in Europe during World War II.

In 1993, Gray invited Barker to join the Miami chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, telling him: ”One day we, the original Tuskegee Airmen, will be gone. We need you to make sure that our experience is remembered in more than one paragraph.”

Celebrating his 25th anniversary in the chapter, Barker is keeping his promise to Gray by leading the chapter in helping fulfill the dreams of students interested in pursuing careers in aviation and aeronautics.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D., is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History & Research Foundation of South Florida. Send feedback to