I feel so proud to blog the story of Bessie Coleman for many reasons.
The details of Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman’s life and her sheer determination made me want to blog details about her. She was the tenth of thirteen children born to sharecroppers in Texas. She walked four miles to and four miles from school until she completed all eight grades. She loved to read and had an aptitude for math. In addition to school work, she did the family chores. To add a further challenge, her father left the family to return to Oklahoma. His wife and children remained in Texas.
At the age of eighteen, Bessie took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University). She completed one term before her money ran out.
In 1915, at the age of 23, she moved to Chicato, Illinois, whre she lived with her brothers and worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. She was intrigued by stories of pilots returning from World War I. She cold not obtain entry to American flight schools because she was black and a woman.
No black U.S aviator would train her either.
Bessie must have been a resourceful young woman, because she found an ally in Robert S. Abott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. He encouraged her to study abroad. He offered financial support. France was chosen as a country where she could gain flying lessons.
The ever resourceful Bessie took a French language class at Berlitz school in Chicago and at the age of 28, traveled to Paris. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane. The steering stick was the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie achieved the success of years of hard work and perseverance. On that day, she set records:
i) first African-American women to earn an international aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale,
iii) first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license.
Ever the perfectionist, Colement spent the next two months taking lessons from a Frence ace pilot near Paris. When her ship arrived in New York, in September 1921, she was hailed as a media sensation and applauded for her guts and skills.
This is not the end of the story. To fly and to earn a living, Bessie wanted to be part of stunt flying acts. In Chicago, Coleman could find no sponsors. She returned to France to spend two months taking advanced aviation courses. Then, she was off to Germany to receive training from a prominent aviation company. Again, her persistence and new skills made her a crowd pleaser.
On September 3, 1922 she made her first appearance show appearance honoring veternans of the all black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. For the next five years, “Queen Bess” was admired by both blacks and whites.
Her death came on April 30, 1926 when she and her mechanic were killed. Bessie was not wearing her seat belt because she planned a parachute the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit to see the terrain. Not long into the flight, the plane failed to pull out of a dive. Coleman was thrown from the plane and died on impact with the ground. Willis, her mechanic, died when the plane hit the ground. Even though the plane was badly burned, it was discovered that a wrench used to service the plane had slid into the gearbox and jammed it. Bessie was just 34 years old.
Her plan to start a school for black aviators was cut short but it was to be achieved in 1929 by Lt. William J. Powell who founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, the aviation school she’d longed to establish, in Los Angeles. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago did their first annual flyover above Lincoln Cemetery, in honor of her. In 1934, Powell dedicated his book Black Wings to her memory. And in 1977, women pilots in the Chicago region founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.
An estimated 10,000 people paid their last respects at the memorial service at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. She was buried at Lincoln Cemetery. It wasn’t until after her death that Bessie received the recognition she deserved:
I founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, the aviation school she’d longed to establish, in Los Angeles. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago did their first annual flyover above Lincoln Cemetery, in honor of her. In 1934, Powell dedicated his book Black Wings to her memory. And in 1977, women pilots in the Chicago region founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.
In 1990, a road near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was re-named Bessie Coleman Drive, and two years later, Chicago declared May 2, 1992, Bessie Coleman Day. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Department issued the Bessie Coleman stamp. And finally, in 2000, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
As a site dedicated to all women, I am proud to share her story. “Queen Bess” your memory lives on to inspire all women.