Coleman, Bessie 1892–1926
Bessie Coleman 1892–1926
Known to an admiring public as “Queen Bess,” Bessie Coleman was the first black woman ever to fly an airplane and the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. During her brief yet distinguished career as a performance flier, she appeared at air shows and exhibitions across the United States, earning wide recognition for her aerial skill, her dramatic flair, and her tenacity. But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Forced for a time to work as a laundress and manicurist to make ends meet, Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.”
As a professional aviatrix, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. Unfortunately, Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her greatest dream—establishing a school for young, black aviators—but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. When she was two years old her family moved to a small farm near the town of Waxahachie, 30 miles south of Dallas. One of 13 children, she spent most of her time looking after her younger sisters and brothers. During the long cotton-picking season, the local school shut down so that the children could help with the harvest. Coleman was an eager student, though, and craved the challenge and excitement of school. She earned top marks, especially in mathematics.
When she was nine years old, her father—who was three-quarters Indian—left the family to return to his home state of Oklahoma. Worn out by racial discrimination in Texas, he hoped to build a better life for himself in a region where those with Indian blood could enjoy full civil rights. Rather than uproot the family, Coleman’s mother remained in Texas, taking in laundry and picking cotton to support herself and her children. Coleman completed eighth grade at the top of her class, then went to work as a laundress, hoping to save enough money from washing and ironing to pay for her secondary and college education.
Born January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, TX; died, from injuries sustained in an airplane crash, April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, FL; daughter of George (a laborer), and Susan Coleman; married Claude Glenn, 1917. Education: Attended the Colored Agricultural and Normal University preparatory school, 1910; studied aviation at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres, Le Crotoy, France, 1920; received international aviator’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, 1921; studied advanced aviation with aircraft designer Anthony H.G. Fokker, Holland, 1922.
Worked as a laundress, 1911-15, and as a manicurist, 1915-21; performed flying exhibitions at air shows and lectured on aviation throughout the U.S., 1922-26; lecturer, c. mid-late 1920s.
In 1910 she enrolled at the preparatory school of the Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma, but her money ran out after only one semester. She was forced to return to Texas and resume her job as a laundress. By 1915 she had had enough of the humiliating life of a domestic worker and left to join her brother, Walter, in Chicago. From that time on, the “Windy City” became her adopted home. Determined not to work as a cook, maid, or laundress, Coleman enrolled at a Chicago beauty school and completed a course in manicuring. One of her first jobs was as a men’s manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, owned by the trainer of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Here, her charm and good looks earned her numerous admirers as well as generous tips. Among her many gentlemen friends was Claude Glenn, a much older man whom she married in 1917, but lived with only briefly.
Within a short time, wrote Doris Rich in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Coleman gained a reputation as the “best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago,” and mingled with many of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful black citizens. One of her new-found friends was Robert S. Abbott, editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper. His support and encouragement helped convince her to pursue what initially seemed an impossible dream. Polishing nails was more appealing than cooking or folding laundry, but Coleman craved adventure and recognition.
In the early 1920s, women pilots were a rarity and black women pilots were a virtual impossibility. But to Coleman, who had read newspaper accounts of aviation heroes and listened with rapt attention to her brother’s wartime tales of French women aviators, a career in flying offered an irresistible challenge. She made up her mind to become an aviator. “From the moment Bessie decided to become a pilot nothing deterred her,” wrote Rich. “The respect and attention she longed for, her need to ‘amount to something,’ were directed at last toward a definite goal. Ignoring all the difficulties of her sex and race, her limited schooling and present occupation, she set off to find a teacher.”
After receiving a string of rejections from American aviation schools, Coleman turned to Abbott for advice. He suggested that she learn French, save her money, and apply to accredited flying schools in France, where racism would be less of a barrier. Before long she had completed a course in basic French at a downtown language school and secured a better job as manager of a chili parlor. The money she saved from her work—together with gifts from a number of wealthy sponsors, including Abbott—was enough to pay for her passage to Europe, as well as her flying lessons. She sailed for France in November of 1920, and upon her arrival enrolled in a seven-month training course at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy.
Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, described by Rich as a “fragile vehicle of wood, wire, steel, aluminum, cloth, and pressed cardboard,” with “a steering system [that] consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.” In June of 1921, after completing seven months of instruction and a rigorous qualifying exam, she received her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the first black woman in the institution’s history to do so. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September sailed for New York.
Coleman’s triumphant return was front-page news for most of the country’s black newspapers and even a number of industry journals, which, according to Rich, hailed her as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.” Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a stunt flier, or “barnstormer,” and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire.
Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February of 1922 she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for Holland to meet with Anthony H. G. Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. In August she returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.
With her mix of talent and daring, Coleman was still missing one ingredient. To attract paying audiences, Coleman needed publicity—or, more specifically, the attention and endorsement of a jaded and often dismissive press. “Bessie realized that to make a living at flying she would first have to dramatize herself, like Roscoe Turner, the great speed pilot who wore a lion-tamer’s costume when he flew and took his pet lion, Gilmore, along in the second cockpit,” wrote Rich. “Speaking to reporters, Bessie now began to draw upon everything at her command—her good looks, her sense of theater, and her eloquence—to put her own campaign of self-dramatization into high gear…. Everything she told them was purposefully selected to enhance the image of a new, exciting, adventurous personality.”
Coleman made her first appearance in an American air show on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flyer” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Midway Airport). Following the show, she and David L. Behncke, founder and president of the International Airline Pilots Association and cosponsor of the event, took eager spectators for joy rides in a pair of two-seater planes.
From Chicago, Coleman went on to perform at air shows in cities around the country, gaining wide publicity and enthusiastic fans wherever she went. Shortly after her Chicago debut, however, she became embroiled in a political controversy that nearly ruined her career. Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed.
“Clearly,” wrote Rich, “[Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.” Colman’s stand cost her. In breaking her movie contract, she succeeded in alienating some of the most powerful men in the black entertainment world. In a series of interviews, J. A. Jackson of Billboard and Peter Jones of the Seminole Company denounced her as “temperamental” and “eccentric.” They made it clear that they wanted nothing more to do with her.
When her show-business backers in New York withdrew their support, Coleman returned to Chicago to search for new sponsors. On her way home she stopped in Baltimore, where she delivered a lecture on her career at the Trinity A.M.E. Church and announced, for the first time, her intention to open a school for aviators. After renting an office and renewing her contacts at Chicago’s Checkerboard Airdrome, she began recruiting students. One of the first who came to her was an African American named Robert P. Sachs, who worked as an advertising manager for the California-based Coast Tire and Rubber Company. Still lacking a plane of her own, a hangar, and money for aircraft maintenance, Coleman persuaded Sachs to let her promote his company’s products through aerial advertising on the West Coast. The money she earned for this service would allow her to purchase her own plane, which she could then use for lessons.
Although Coleman eventually succeeded in buying an aircraft of her own, the only one she could afford was an ancient Curtiss JN-4, priced at $400. Days after receiving the plane, she was flying from Santa Monica, California to an exhibition in central Los Angeles in February of 1923, when it stalled at 300 feet, nose-dived, and smashed into the ground. She spent the next three months in the hospital with a broken leg, broken ribs, and several serious lacerations. Discouraged by the loss of her only plane, her lengthy hospitalization, and continuing managerial problems, Coleman spent the next 18 months in Chicago, recuperating with family and friends and struggling to secure a job with a flying circus.
After dozens of rejections, Coleman managed to line up a series of exhibition flights and some strong advance press notices in Texas. She made her first Texas flight on June 19, the anniversary of the day Texan blacks achieved their freedom. After the show, some 75 spectators, most of whom were women, boarded five small passenger planes for complimentary flights through the night sky over Houston. According to Rich, the city’s leading black newspaper, the Houston Informer, described the event as “the first time colored public of the South ha[d] been given the opportunity to fly.” Around the same time, Coleman was quoted as saying in an interview with the Houston Post-Dispatch that her greatest ambition was to “make Uncle Tom’s cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school.”
Although Coleman continued to perform in aerial exhibitions in Texas and throughout the United States, she became increasingly aware of the potential power lecture platforms held as a means of inspiring other young, black Americans to pursue careers in aviation. She spent the last year of her life speaking at schools, theaters, and churches around the country, accompanying each lecture with evocative film clips of her aerial displays. Delivering lectures proved more cost-effective than appearing in air shows, but the money she collected from her audiences fell far short of what she needed to buy a new plane and establish her school.
At the suggestion of a friend, Colman opened a beauty shop in Orlando, Florida, to help raise funds. Finally, she turned to another friend, chewing-gum heir Edwin M. Beeman, to help her make the final payment on an old Army surplus plane from the First World War. Beeman arranged to have the plane—the only aircraft Coleman could afford—flown from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, so that she could take part in a May Day celebration sponsored by the city’s Negro Welfare League.
The day before the Jacksonville event, Coleman, who was billed as the show’s star attraction, and her mechanic, William D. Wills, took the old airplane out for a practice run. Wills was in the front cockpit, piloting the plane, while Coleman sat in the rear, her seatbelt unfastened so she could peer over the cockpit to study the contours of the field below. The highlight of her performance the next day was to be a spectacular parachute jump from a speeding plane at 2,500 feet.
The plane had only been in the air for about ten minutes and was cruising smoothly at 80 miles per hour when it suddenly accelerated, went into a tail-spin, and flipped upside down. Coleman was hurled out of the plane and plunged more than 500 feet to her death. Wills tried but failed to regain control of the aircraft, and died instantly when it hit the ground. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it, causing the plane to spin out of control. Experts noted at the time that gears in more modern planes had a protective coating—an accident like this need not have happened.
On May 2, 1926, thousands of mourners—among them hundreds of schoolchildren who had heard Coleman lecture on the glories of aviation—attended a memorial service in Jacksonville. Three days later her remains arrived in Chicago, where thousands more attended a funeral at the city’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. Several years after her death, black aviators inspired by her pioneering achievements formed a network of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs.
A new organization known as the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, open to women pilots of all races, was founded in 1977—some 50 years after her death—by a group of black women pilots from the Chicago area. Every April, on the anniversary of Coleman’s death, the Bessie Coleman Aviators, together with pilots from the Chicago American Pilots Association and the Negro Airmen International, fly low over Lincoln Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island to drop flowers on her grave. As an additional tribute to the life and courage of the world’s first black woman pilot, in 1990, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O’Hare Airport “Bessie Coleman Drive.” In 1992 he proclaimed May 2nd “Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago.” Shortly thereafter, Coleman received national recognition when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating her extraordinary life and accomplishments.
Powell, William J., Black Wings, Ivan Deach, Jr., 1934.
Rich, Doris L., Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Ebony, May 1977, pp. 88-90; February 1979, pp. 16-18; February 1994, pp. 118-24.
Essence, May 1976, p. 36; June 1976, p. 48.
Jet, September 3, 1990, p. 34.
Negro Digest, May 1950, pp. 82-3.
Sepia, June 1981, pp. 56-7.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the first African American to earn the coveted international pilot's license, issued in Paris (June 15, 1921) by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born.
When George Coleman's hopes for a better living in Waxahachie remained unfulfilled, and with five of his nine living children still at home, he proposed moving again, this time to Indian territory in Oklahoma. There, on a reservation, his heritage of three Native American grandparents would give him the civil rights denied to both African Americans and Native Americans in Texas. In 1901, after Susan refused to go with him, he went to Oklahoma on his own, leaving his family behind in Waxahachie. Susan found work as a domestic, her two sons became day laborers, and Bessie was left to be the caretaker of her two younger sisters.
Education for Coleman was limited to eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse that closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton. Already responsible for her sisters and the household chores while her mother worked, Coleman was a reluctant cotton picker but an intelligent and expert accountant. The only member of the family who could accurately add the total weight of the cotton they picked, she increased the total whenever she could by putting her foot on the scale when the foreman wasn't looking.
Coleman easily established her position as family leader, reading aloud to her siblings and mother at night, winning the prize for selling the most tickets for a church benefit, and assuring her ambitious church-going mother that she intended to "amount to something." After completing school she worked as a laundress and saved her wages until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University. She left after one year when her funds were exhausted.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915 when she moved to Chicago to live with her older brother, Walter, a Pullman porter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while she continued to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: aviation.
Cultivating the friendship of leaders in South Side Chicago's African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott, publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman appealed to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he said, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation.
Coleman took French language lessons while managing a chili parlor and, with backing from Abbott and a wealthy real estate dealer, Jessie Binga, she left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her F.A.I. (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license on June 15, 1921. She returned to the United States in September 1921 but soon realized that she needed to expand her repertoire and learn aerobatics if she were to make a living giving exhibition flights. She went back to Europe the following February and for the next six months gained further flying experience in Holland, France, and Germany.
Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined to reporters the objectives she intended to pursue for the remainder of her life. She would be a leader, she said, in introducing aviation to her race. She would found a school for aviators of any race, and she would appear before audiences in churches, schools, and theaters to arouse the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight.
Intelligent, beautiful, and eloquent, Coleman often exaggerated her remarkable-enough accomplishments in the interest of better publicity and bigger audiences. She even achieved occasional brief notice from the press of the time, which ordinarily confined its coverage of African Americans to actors, athletes and entertainers or those involved in sex, crime, or violence. But the African American press of the country, primarily weekly newspapers, quickly proclaimed her "Queen Bell."
In December 1922, after a number of successful air shows on the East Coast and in Chicago, Coleman walked out on the starring role of a New York movie in production, publicly denouncing the script as "Uncle Tom stuff" de-meaning to her race. The abrupt move alienated a number of influential African American critics and producers and threatened to end her career. But Coleman bounced back by going to California and air-dropping advertising leaflets for a tire company in exchange for money to buy a JN4, or "Jenny"—a surplus U.S. Army training plane from World War I.
On February 4, 1923, however, within only days of getting her plane, Coleman crashed shortly after takeoff from Santa Monica en route to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The Jenny was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months. Returning to Chicago to recuperate, it took her another 18 months to find backers for a series of shows in Texas. Her flights and theater appearances there during the summer of 1925 were highly successful, earning her enough to make a down payment on another surplus Jenny she found at Love Field, Dallas.
To raise the rest of the money, in January 1926 she returned to the East Coast, where she had signed up for a number of speaking engagements and exhibition flights in borrowed planes in Georgia and Florida. In Florida she met the Rev. Hezekiah Keith Hill and his wife, Viola Tillinghast, community activists from Orlando who invited her to stay with them. She also met Edwin M. Beeman, heir to the Beeman Chewing Gum fortune, whose interest in flying led him to give her the payment due on her airplane in Dallas. At last, she wrote to one of her sisters, she was going to be able to earn enough money to open her school for fliers.
Coleman left Orlando by train to give a benefit exhibition for the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League, scheduled for May 1, 1926. William D. Wills, the young white mechanic-pilot who flew her plane to her from Love Field, made three forced landings en route. Two local pilots who witnessed his touchdown at Jacksonville's Paxon Field said later that the Jenny was so worn and so poorly maintained they couldn't understand how it made it all the way from Dallas. On April 30 Wills piloted the plane on a trial flight while Coleman sat in the other cockpit to survey the area over which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day. Her seat belt was unattached because she had to be able to lean out over the edge of the plane while picking the best sites for her program. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the plane dived, then flipped over, throwing Coleman out. Moments later Wills crashed. Both were killed.
Coleman had three memorial services—in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago, the last attended by thousands. She was buried at Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery and gradually, over the years following her death, achieved recognition at last as a hero of early aviation and of her race.
The best source of information on Bessie Coleman is Queen Bess—The Life of Bessie Coleman (1993), written by Doris Rich in large part to correct the many misstatements in contemporary sources. Two reliable places where information can be found are the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago and the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Fisher, Lillian M., Brave Bessie: flying free, Dallas, Tex.: Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., 1995.
Freydberg, Elizabeth Hadley, Bessie Coleman, the brownskin lady bird, New York: Garland Pub., 1994.
Rich, Doris L., Queen Bess: daredevil aviator, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. □
Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn an international pilot's license. She dazzled crowds with her stunts at air shows and refused to be slowed by racism (a dislike or disrespect of a person based on their race).
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate (unable to read and write) children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born. In 1901 George Coleman left his family. Bessie's mother and two older brothers went to work and Bessie was left as caretaker of her two younger sisters.
Education for Coleman was limited to eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse that closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton. Coleman easily established her position as family leader, reading aloud to her siblings and her mother at night. She often assured her ambitious church-going mother that she intended to "amount to something." After completing school she worked as a laundress and saved her pay until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University. She left after one year when she ran out of money.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915, when she moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brother, Walter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while continuing to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: to become a pilot.
Learning to fly
After befriending several leaders in South Side Chicago's African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott (1868–1940), publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators (pilots) in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman turned to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he insisted, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation.
Coleman left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.; international pilot's license) license on June 15, 1921. She traveled Europe, gaining further flying experience so that she could perform in air shows.
Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined the goals for the remainder of her life to reporters. She would be a leader, she said, in introducing aviation to her race. She would found a school for aviators of any race, and she would appear before audiences in churches, schools, and theaters to spark the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight.
Intelligent, beautiful, and well spoken, Coleman often exaggerated her already remarkable accomplishments in the interest of better publicity and bigger audiences. As a result, the African American press of the country, primarily weekly newspapers, quickly proclaimed her "Queen Bess."
In 1923 Coleman purchased a small plane but crashed on the way to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The plane was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months. Returning to Chicago to recover, it took her another eighteen months to find financial backers for a series of shows in Texas. Her flights and theater appearances there during the summer of 1925 were highly successful, earning her enough to make a down payment on another plane. Her new fame was also bringing in steady work. At last, she wrote to one of her sisters, she was going to be able to earn enough money to open her school for fliers.
A tragic ending
Coleman left Orlando, Florida, by train to give a benefit exhibition for the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League, scheduled for May 1, 1926. Her pilot, William D. Wills, flew her plane into Orlando, but had to make three forced landings because the plane was so worn and poorly maintained. On April 30, 1926, Wills piloted the plane on a trial flight while Coleman sat in the other cockpit to survey the area over which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day. Her seat belt was unattached because she had to lean out over the edge of the plane while picking the best sites for her program. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the plane dived, then flipped over, throwing Coleman out. Moments later Wills crashed. Both were killed.
Coleman had three memorial services—in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago, the last attended by thousands. She was buried at Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery and gradually, over the years following her death, achieved recognition at last as a hero of early aviation.
For More Information
Borden, Louise. Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman. New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2001.
Fisher, Lillian M. Brave Bessie: Flying Free. Dallas, TX: Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., 1995.
Rich, Doris L. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
African American Pilot
The first African-American female pilot, Bessie Coleman's aviation achievements demonstrated that women and blacks were capable of mastering flight. Her accomplishments also symbolized the potential of using technology for various applications. Although Coleman earned her pilot's license before Amelia Earhart (1898-1937), the latter was a better-known aviatrix in part because she was wealthy and white. During her brief career as a pilot, Coleman was a pioneer black barnstormer and stunt flyer, but her premature death in a plane crash resulted in her contributions to aviation remaining obscure.
Born on January 26, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas, Elizabeth Coleman, known as Bessie to her family and fans, was the daughter of share-croppers George and Susan Coleman. When George Coleman abandoned his family, Bessie Coleman helped her mother by harvesting cotton and washing and ironing laundry. Determined to improve her circumstances, Coleman voraciously read books written by influential African Americans, including Booker T. Washington. She completed high school and enrolled at Langston Industrial College, which she left after one semester because it was too expensive. In 1917 Coleman moved to Chicago, where two of her brothers lived.
Coleman ambitiously sought success, hoping to help minorities overcome racism and poverty by serving as an example of how to surmount such socioeconomic and cultural barriers. When her brother told her about French female pilots serving in World War I, Coleman focused on flying as the means to attain equality and to deliver her message. After reading numerous aviation books, Coleman attempted to enroll at several flying schools in 1919 and 1920 but was refused admission because she was an African American and a woman. Persistent, Bessie sought advice from Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Weekly Defender, an African-American newspaper. He suggested that she study French to prepare for sessions at a European flight school. Supplementing her income with money from philanthropist Jesse Binga, Coleman traveled to Le Crotoy, France, in November 1920 to practice at the Caudron Aircraft Manufacturing Company's flight school. She also took private lessons from a French war veteran.
Coleman earned a pilot's license in June 1921 from the Federation Aéronautique Internationale. She was the first African-American woman to receive an international pilot's license. She took advanced flying lessons in Germany and practiced acrobatic maneuvers. Confident in her piloting skills, Coleman left Europe. In the United States, she embarked on barnstorming tours. Her debut flight was at Curtiss Field on Long Island. Coleman also lectured to African-American audiences, emphasizing the opportunities that aviation offered and denouncing segregation. Her enthusiasm inspired crowds, who watched her perform risky stunts in the sky. Fearless and committed to publicizing aviation, Coleman first jumped from an airplane when a parachutist refused to perform. She conducted aerial advertising for the Coast Firestone Rubber Company. Coleman also raced airplanes and survived several crashes. Abbot dubbed Coleman "Queen Bess" because of her spectacular show-manship, which made her a celebrity featured in newsreels worldwide.
Coleman's primary goal was to establish a flight school in Los Angeles specifically for blacks. She increased the number of performances on her tours in order to finance her future school. During a test flight at Paxon Field in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 30, 1926, Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt or parachute, was killed when her plane plummeted to the earth. (A loose wrench had interfered with the controls.) Fellow pilot William J. Powell established a flying school as Coleman had envisioned for African-American pilots. Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs formed nationwide and Powell published the Bessie Coleman Aero News. These aviation clubs organized America's first all-black air show in 1931. Other memorials to Coleman have included a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor and a branch of the Chicago Public Library named for her.
ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER
January 26, 1892
April 30, 1926
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American female aviator. She was born in Atlanta, Texas, but her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when she was still an infant. When she was seven, her parents separated. Her father, who was a Choctaw Indian, returned to the reservation in Oklahoma, and her mother supported the large family by picking cotton and doing laundry, jobs in which her children aided her. Because she wanted Coleman to attend college, her mother allowed her to keep her income from her laundry work, but this money only financed one semester at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now Langston University). After this semester, she returned to Waxahachie briefly; and between 1915 and 1917, she went to Chicago, where she took a course in manicuring and worked at the White Sox barbershop until the early years of World War I. She then managed a small restaurant.
Coleman became interested in the burgeoning field of aviation, which had entered the national consciousness as a consequence of its role in World War I, but aviation schools rejected all her applications on the basis of her race and/or gender, until Robert S. Abbott, founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, advised her to study aviation abroad. She took a course in French, went to Paris in November 1920, and attended an aviation school in Le Crotoy. She returned to the United States in September 1921 with a pilot's license and went back to Europe in 1922, this time obtaining an international pilot's license, the first African-American woman to earn these licenses. When she returned to the United States after her second sojourn in Europe, Coleman made a name for herself in exhibition flying, performing at shows attended by thousands. She barnstormed throughout the United States and became known as "Brave Bessie." She lectured in schools and churches on the opportunities in aviation wherever she performed, and she saved the money she earned from these lectures and performances in the hope of opening an aviation school for African Americans. On April 30, 1926, during a practice run in Jacksonville. Florida, Coleman's plane somersaulted out of a nosedive, and Coleman fell 2,000 feet (610 meters) to her death.
See also Abbott, Robert Sengstacke
King, Anita. "Brave Bessie: First Black Pilot." Essence (May 1976): 36; (June 1976): 48.
Rich, Doris L. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Group, 1992.
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