Sometimes in doing research you run across a story that grabs you and pulls you in. Such is the story of Bessie Coleman. You may not be familiar with the name, but she was the “mother of flying” for all people of color.
Born in 1892, Bessie was the 10th of 13 children. Her family lived in Waxahachie, Texas, most of her young life. When she was 23, she decided picking cotton was not what she wanted for her future. So Bessie Coleman went to Chicago where her brothers lived. There she became a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop.
One of her brothers, John, who had fought in World War I, challenged her to be like French women and learn to fly a plane. There were problems with that challenge though. She was a woman, black and lived in America where there were no flying schools that would let her in the door.
Not to be stopped by such obstacles, Coleman enlisted help to get to France. At the barber shop she had met well- known Chicago Defender founder and publisher Robert Abbott. With help from Abbott and others, she was ready to start her new journey but only after taking foreign language classes.
With the idea of obtaining a pilot’s license in mind, Bessie Coleman arrived in Paris in November 1920. She accomplished her goal by June 1921, but getting her license was only part of what had taken place. Coleman was the first of her race, male or female, to earn an international pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She also was the first American.
Later in 1921, she returned to the United States to start her career. Flying was still in its infancy at this time. The only way to make money was to become a stunt pilot and join a “barnstorming” circuit. However, she had to learn more about this type of flying, so she returned to Europe and was trained in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Returning to the United States, she became very popular and was nicknamed “Queen Bess.”
A 2001 article in the Los Angles Times, “Daredevil of the Sky: the Bessie Coleman Story,” tells of Bessie’s first air show, which was at Curtiss Field on Long Island in 1922. The show honored the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that fought in World War I. The show was sponsored by Abbott, her old friend who had seen enough in her to get her to France for lessons.
The advertisements for the airshow said she was “the greatest woman flier.”
Coleman not only did very difficult stunts and parachute jumps from a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, she often gave lectures to further the public’s education on flying, especially flying for women and men and women who were black.
Coleman would not do an airshow unless people of all color were let in the front gate together. She turned down a part in a movie, which could have made her more popular, because of the way she would have been portrayed. Her dream was to establish a flying school for black students.
Sadly she would not see that dream come true. Bessie had been very fortunate as a barnstormer. She had only one major crash where she broke a leg and some ribs.
But her luck ran out. In April 1926, she was practicing for a show in Jacksonville, Florida, when her plane spun out of control. Coleman was in the back seat without her seat belt on, and she was thrown out of the plane and to her death. She was 34 years old. Her pilot also was killed when the plane crashed.
Short was the life of such a daring woman. Coleman was daring in the way she flew and daring in the way she wanted to open doors for people to experience the love of flying.
In 1929, William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club for blacks in Los Angeles. In 2006, Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1995, the U.S. Post Office issued the Bessie Coleman stamp signifying her tremendous contribution to aviation today for people of all races.
Marilyn N. Windham of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.