Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 children born to Susan Coleman, a black housekeeper, and George Coleman, a sharecropper of mixed Native American and black heritage. His father returned to Oklahoma in an attempt to escape discrimination in 1901. Susan Coleman chose not to accompany him. she and their children remained in Waxahachie, Texas.
It was a harsh environment of poverty and discrimination. Blacks were prevented from voting through the use of literacy tests, poll taxes, economic reprisals, and terrorism. They could not ride in wagons with whites, nor use a wide range of public facilities that were “whites-only”. Bessie first went to school when she was six years old. The “school” was a one-room log cabin and was a four-mile walk from her home.
Coleman grew up helping his mother wash clothes and pick cotton to earn money. By age 18, Bessie had saved enough money to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. However, her savings did not last as long as she had hoped; she dropped out of college after just one semester.
At age 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with two of his older brothers. Although she hoped to make something of herself, Chicago offered little more to a black woman than Texas. In 1915, she attended the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and became a manicurist in a hair salon. Soldiers who had served in World War I returned home with tales of flying exploits that sparked Coleman’s interest in aviation. She sought to become a pilot after her brother John told her that French women were allowed to learn to fly planes.
Although she applied to several flight schools across the United States, no school would accept her because she was female and black. In fact, very few American women of any race had a pilot’s license in 1918. Most of them were predominantly white and wealthy.
Robert Abbott, owner of the Chicago Defender and one of the first black millionaires, recommended that he move to France to learn to fly. Coleman began taking evening classes in French because his applications to French flight schools had to be written in that language.
Coleman was accepted into the Caudron Brothers Aviation School in Le Crotoy, France. Using his savings and additional financial support from Abbott and another black contractor, Coleman sailed for France from New York on November 20, 1920.
The only student of color in her class, Coleman reached her goal in seven months. She learned to fly in a 27-foot biplane that frequently failed (sometimes in the air). Coleman witnessed a fellow student die in a plane crash while in class; she described the accident as a “terrible shock” to her nerves. However, the accident did not deter her. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded him an international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.
Triumphant return to the United States
Upon his return to the United States in September 1921, Coleman met dozens of journalists. the Air Services News noted that Coleman had become “a full fledged aviator, the first of her breed”. Invited as the guest of honor to attend the all-black musical “Shuffle Along,” the entire audience (including the several hundred white people) rose to a standing ovation for the first black female pilot in the States. -United.
Coleman’s goal was to own an airplane and his own flight school. She gave speeches and showed films of her aerial stuff at churches, theaters and schools to earn money. However, Coleman declined to speak anywhere there was segregation or discrimination against black people.
On September 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island, she made the first public flight in the United States by a black woman. the Chicago Defender publicized the event. The newspaper report said the “wonderful little woman” Bessie Coleman would do “thrilling stunts”. She became famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” on an airplane.
Over the next five years, Coleman performed at countless air shows. As a pilot, Coleman quickly set a benchmark for her race and gender in the 1920s. She toured the country as a barnstormer, performing aerobatics at air shows. According to a Kansas reporter, up to 3,000 people, including local dignitaries, attended an air show. At a time when barn assault pilots were looking to make money and publicize the flight, people were fascinated by his performance, and Coleman became even more popular in the United States and Europe.
She traveled the country giving flight lessons, performing at air shows and encouraging black people and women to learn to fly.
In February 1923, Coleman survived his first major accident. Her plane’s engine died and she crashed. Coleman was seriously injured, suffering a broken leg, cracked ribs and cuts to his face. Her injuries healed and the accident did not prevent her from flying. She continued to perform dangerous aerial tricks.
Theft, hard work, and pinching a dime from Coleman helped her save enough money to buy her own plane. It was a Jenny JN-4 with an OX-5 engine. She returned to her hometown in Texas to perform to a large crowd.
However, since Texas was still segregated, the show organizers planned to have two separate entrances to the stadium, one for whites and one for blacks. Coleman refused to perform unless there was only one door for all spectators. Although Coleman’s request was met, there were still separate sections of the stadium. She agreed to perform and became famous for standing up for her beliefs.
Coleman’s Last Flight
On April 30, 1926, Coleman made a test flight in Jacksonville, Florida, with mechanic William Wills. Coleman was preparing for an air show which was to take place the following day.
Wills was piloting the plane and Coleman was in the passenger seat. At a height of 3,000 to 3,500 feet, an unsecured key got stuck in the drive gears. Wills was no longer able to control the direction of the plane and he rolled over and fell to the ground. Aircraft of this era had no roofs or other protection, and Coleman did not wear a seat belt. When the plane overturned, Coleman died. Wills crashed near Coleman’s body and also died.
His death was heartbreaking for thousands of people. About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to Coleman, filing past his casket on Chicago’s South Side. His funeral was attended by a number of prominent black people and presided over by Ida B. Wells, an outspoken equal rights advocate.
At the time of Coleman’s death, the Dallas Express was the oldest and most widely circulated black newspaper in the South. In an editorial, the newspaper said: “There is reason to believe that the general public has not fully felt the magnitude of his contribution to the achievements of the race.”
Bessie Coleman crossed the skies, the first black woman and the first Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Due to her flight tricks, Coleman’s nicknames were “Brave Bessie”, “Queen Bess”, and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”.
While using his piloting skills to earn a living, Coleman’s ultimate goal was to encourage women and black people to work towards their dreams. Despite his untimely death, his life inspired people around the world – and continues to do so.
In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago (an organization of black pilots) began a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave each year. A group of black female pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club in 1977.
In 1992, a Chicago City Council resolution directed the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. The board resolution stated, “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire thousands, if not millions, of young people with her sense of adventure, positive attitude and determination to succeed. The “Bessie Coleman Stamp” was issued in 1995 to commemorate her accomplishments.
Author’s Note: This is one of many articles that FreightWaves.com has/will publish to honor Black History Month in the United States.