This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Good – Bessie Coleman
The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation. . .
– Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on Jan. 26, 1892. She was the tenth of thirteen children to George Coleman, a sharecropper who was part Cherokee or Choctaw and African American and Susan who was African American. Coleman grew up in Waxahachie, Texas where she walked four miles to a segregated one-room school. She loved to read and was great at math.
When Coleman was nine, her father left to go to Oklahoma (Indian Territory) to find a better life. He was fed up with the the racial barriers in Texas. But his family stayed behind. Coleman completed school but wanted to learn more. At 18, she enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but returned home after a term because her money ran out. She moved back home and worked as a laundress.
She moved to Chicago in 1916 to live with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. Pilots coming home from World War I would tell stories about flying and Coleman decided she wanted to be a pilot. She worked another job to save money for flight schools. But no school in the United States would take women, let alone African American students. The founder of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, told her to study overseas and the paper also backed her financially.
In late 1920, Coleman went to Paris, France to learn to fly. She finished the ten-month course in seven months. On June 15, 1921 she became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. She continued learning from an ace pilot and returned home in September as a media sensation.
Commercial flight was not in existence at that time. Coleman decided that as a civilian aviator, she would have to be a barnstorming stunt flier. Despite her skills and popularity, no one in Chicago was willing to train her. So she headed back to Europe training in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Once trained, she came back home.
Coleman, known as “Queen Bess,” became quite a sensation as a stunt flier. She performed all over the country, and refused to perform to segregated audiences. But even with this she wanted to “amount to something.” She worked in Orlando, Florida at a beauty shop she opened, hoping to raise money for her own plane. She was offered a role in a film produced by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She was hoping this film would advance her career and dream of opening her own flying school. But when the role had her wear tattered clothes and carry a pack on her back, she refused. She didn’t want to play the stereotypical African American.
On April 30, 1926 Coleman and her mechanic, William D. Willis, got into her recently purchased Curtiss JN-4 to prepare for an airshow where Coleman would do a parachute jump. She did not have her seatbelt on so she could examine the terrain for the next day’s jump. The plane went into a dive and spin and Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 feet. She died instantly when she hit the ground. The plane hit the ground and exploded on impact. Willis was also killed. The plane was known to have mechanical issues, but a wrench used to repair the plane had jammed the controls.
Bessie Coleman was 34.
Bessie Coleman. (n.d.). In Bessie Coleman. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://www.bessiecoleman.com/
Bessie Coleman. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Coleman