Bessie Coleman was the first African-American female to receive a pilots's license. She overcame challenges of sexism, racism and poverty to pave the way for blacks in aviation.
Bessie Coleman (1893 – 1926) grew up in poverty, picking cotton in Texas. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was of African decent. Her father, George Coleman, was from Native American Indian (Choctaw) heritage. Soon after Bessie’s birth in Atlanta, Texas (believed to be January 26, 1892), the Colemans made Waxahachie, Texas their home. Due to discrimination and his inability to find work, George deserted his family and moved to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory.
Bessie attended a one-room school in Waxahachie that went to the 8th grade. At age 18, Bessie enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. However, she had to return home after the first semester when her money ran out.
As a young adult, Bessie moved to Chicago to live with an uncle. In Chicago, Bessie took a job as a manicurist in a barbershop on the Stroll, the city’s Black business district. She met and befriended poets, jazz singers, bankers and mobsters. Bessie met many stars of the day including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Jesse Binga. Most influential, Bessie made the acquaintance of Robert Abbot, publisher of the Chicago Defender Newspaper.
It was in Chicago that Bessie became enthralled with aviation and decided to become a pilot. She had followed the career of Eugene Bullard, an African-American who flew for France in WWI) in the Defender. However, in the early 1920’s African American women had no chance of being accepted by an aviation school. Due to Bessie’s fair, light-skinned complexion, at least one school offered to accept her if she would “pass for white”. Bessie refused these conditions. When Bessie discovered that she might possibly gain admittance in France on her own terms, she began to study the French language, applied for admission, and was accepted by the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron, an aviation school south of Paris. Later she returned to France for a second round of training to enhance her skills.
Coleman returned to the United States in 1921 as the first African American woman pilot licensed by the prestigious Federation Aeronautique Internationale, six months before Amelia Earhart.
Bessie made front-page news in African-American newspapers across the United State . She quickly earned the title “Brave Bessie”, touring the country as a barnstorming pilot and astonishing the crowds with daring feats and showmanship in a barrowed Curtiss JN-4. Later she became affectionately known as “Queen Bess”.
In 1923, Bessie began worked for the Coast Tire and Rubber Company of Oakland Caifornia. The money she earned publicizing the companies tires, she was able to purchase her first plane, a used JN-4. (“Jenny 4”). Her first crash occurred on February 4, 1923, in Santa Monica, California, when her new plan stalled and fell 300 feet out of the sky. Even though Bessie suffered a broken leg three broken ribs and facial laceration, she begged to be patched up so she could go back to flying. The attending physician sent her to the hospital. From her hospital bed, Bessie told reporters, “Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!”
Bessie after regaining her health, bought a second surplus JN-4. Bessie saw the future of aviation and wanted African-Americans to be in on the ground floor of this great adventure. She was able to command the attention of media reporters of the day and she always had a message of hope. She reminded people that there was no difference among the races in intelligence, desire and courage. Her personal example was in flying—performing great feats in the air—against great odds! Flying was considered to be the ultimate accomplishment during this period. She had become the best know African-American besides the Jazz singers. She constantly reminded people that they could do whatever they dreamed.
Bessie died when she fell from her airplane on April 28, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida. Bessie was leaning over the side, scouting for a landing site for a parachute jump. She had not fastened her seat belt and was thrown out of the cockpit when it lurched and flipped over. Investigations showed that the mechanic, William D. Wills, had left his wrench near the control gears after his most recent repairs to the aircraft. The loose tool jammed the gears and caused the fatal incident.
Bessie’s pioneering achievement opened the door for the many women and African Americans who follow in her foot steps. Her legacy inspired the formations of several organizations including the following:
• Bessie Coleman Aero Club founded by William Powell
• National Airmen’s Association of America and the Coffey School of Aeronautics founded by Willa Brown and Cornelius Coffey
• Tuskegee Airmen
• Negro Airmen International, Inc
• Organization of Black Airline Pilots, Inc.
• The Challenger Pilots’ Association
Deborah is a Bessie Coleman re-enactor. She is available for presentations from January through March. You can contact the author by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.