Bessie Coleman - Aviator
Below are two overviews concerning Bessie Coleman's life and her flying career.
Three publications that provide in-depth information regarding Bessie's life....
Bess – Daredevil Aviator, By
Doris L. Rich,
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1993
Bessie – Flying Free,
By Lillian M. Fisher, Hendrick-Long
Publishing Co., Dallas, Texas, 1995
Up in the Air – The Story of Bessie Coleman, By Philip S. Hart, Carolrhoda Books, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1996
by Roni Morales
Bessie Coleman (Brave Bessie or Queen Bess), the world's first licensed black pilot, daughter of Susan Coleman, was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, the twelfth of thirteen children. She grew up in Waxahachie. Her father left the family in 1900 to return to Indian Territory. Bessie, along with several siblings still living at home, helped ease the family's financial troubles by picking cotton or assisting with the washing and ironing that her mother took in. Upon graduation from high school she enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Financial difficulties, however, forced her quit after one semester. She moved to Chicago, where a brother was then living, and attended beauty school for a time. She spent the early years of World War I working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbershop. She then operated a small but profitable chili parlor. Apparently in early 1917 Bessie Coleman married Claude Glenn, but she never publicly acknowledged the marriage, and the two soon separated.
In 1920 Coleman, acting on a lifelong dream of learning to fly, traveled abroad to attend aviation school in Le Crotoy, France, after she discovered that no American school would accept African Americans. Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender, assisted her in contacting schools abroad. After studying for ten months in France she was issued a license on June 15, 1921, by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, giving her the distinction of being the first black person in the world to become a licensed pilot. She returned to the United States in 1921. Her goal, in addition to making flying her career, was to open a flying school for black students. In 1922 she made a second trip to Europe and during her studies took lessons from the chief pilot for the Fokker Aircraft Company in Germany.
Coleman's first American air show was at Curtiss Field, near Manhattan, on September 3, 1922. She followed the success of this show with exhibition flights all over the country, many of them in her native South. After several years of touring the East and West coasts, she traveled back to Texas and established her headquarters in Houston in 1925. Her first performance in Texas took place in that city on June 19, 1925. Her daredevil stunts and hair raising maneuvers earned her the nickname "Brave Bessie." She primarily flew Curtiss JN4D planes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. During her trips she often gave lectures to schools and churches to encourage young black men and women to enter aviation. On one occasion in Waxahachie she refused to give an exhibition on white school grounds unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance as whites. The request was granted, although blacks and whites remained segregated once inside. Early in her career she was presented a loving cup for her achievements from the cast of Shuffle Along, a black Broadway musical. By 1926, the year of her death, Coleman had become one of America's most popular stunt fliers.
She had her first major accident in 1924 while barnstorming in California, and she took a year off to recover. On April 30, 1926, she died during a test flight before a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. About twelve minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a nosedive as planned; instead, it did a somersault and dropped Bessie Coleman to her death. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, fell with the plane and died on impact. Although the charred condition of the wreckage prevented a full investigation, the crash was believed to have been caused by a loose wrench that jammed the plane's controls. After funeral services in Jacksonville, which were attended by hundreds of admirers, Coleman's body was returned to Chicago, where she had made her home. She is buried there in Lincoln Cemetery. Although her dream of establishing a flying school for black students never materialized, the Bessie Coleman Aero groups were organized after her death. On Labor Day, 1931, these flying clubs sponsored the first all black air show in America, which attracted 15,000 spectators. Over the years, recognition of Coleman's accomplishments has grown. In 1977 a group of black female student pilots in Indiana organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1990 a street in Chicago was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and May 2, 1992, was declared Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago. In 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in her honor.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Austin American-Statesman, September 6, 1993. Roger Bilstein and Jay Miller, Aviation in Texas (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985). Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1993. Houston Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1926. Anita King, "Brave Bessie: First Black Pilot," Parts 1 and 2, Essence, May, June 1976. Doris L. Rich, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.
1892 - 1926
Bessie Coleman was born to George and Susan Coleman on January 16, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas. Bessie’s father, being three-fourths Indian, moved his family to Oklahoma Territory when Bessie was still a baby. Susan Coleman, an African American, wanted to move back to Texas. By the time Bessie was 2 years old the family was living in Waxahachie, a town of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants.
Waxahachie, the seat of Ellis County where cotton was king, was straddled by two railroads, the Fort Worth-New Orleans and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas. The area was a teaming hub of cotton yards, cotton warehouses and cotton mills. Economic conditions were promising.
According to Ellis County records, George Coleman purchased "one-quarter acre, more or less" of land north of town on Palmer Road, October 15, 1894. On this little piece of land backing up to Mustang Creek, he built a small frame house for his family. The area was a community within Waxahachie where blacks established their own religious, commercial and social institutions.
It has been written that Susan Coleman gave birth to thirteen children. In 1900, the records show sons Osa (15), John (1l) and daughters Bessie (8), Elois (5), Nilas (3) and Georgie (1) living in the home.
In 1901 Bessie’s life underwent a dramatic change when her father chose to return to Indian Territory. Her mother refused to move her family back to Oklahoma so she and the children remained in Waxahachie. Susan worked as a domestic and took in washing to support her family. As the children grew older they began to leave home to find work elsewhere, some as far away as Chicago. Soon only the four younger sisters remained at home.
Bessie attended school and studied hard. She was good in mathematics and loved to read. At times she had to miss school to work in the cotton fields or mind her younger siblings. When not in school, Bessie read books her mother borrowed from a book wagon that came to town now and then. Bessie was determined to get a good education.
After completing all eight grades of the all-black school in Waxahachie, Bessie worked as a laundress until she and her mother saved enough money for her to enroll in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Falling short of the full entrance requirements, Bessie was placed in the sixth grade of the university’s preparatory school. She was 18 years old at the time.
Near the end of her first year, her savings almost gone, Bessie returned to Waxahachie. It is said when she was informed that the Missionary Baptist Church was planning to give her a welcome home party, she brought the entire Langston band home with her to provide the music. While personally disappointed, she returned home a conquering hero.
Somewhere along the way Bessie became infatuated with airplanes and dreamed of being able to view the world from above as a pilot. With this dream in mind, she worked and saved every possible penny. Her brothers invited her to join them in Chicago where opportunities were greater. It was not long before Bessie’s family was waving her good-bye as she boarded a train at the M-K-T Railroad station in Waxahachie, bound for Chicago to fulfill her dream.
In Chicago, Bessie became a trained manicurist working at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she became acquainted with Robert Arnold, editor of a leading Chicago newspaper, Weekly Defender. Bessie expressed to him her desire to fly and that no flight schools in America accepted women, especially black women. At the suggestion of Robert Arnold, Bessie began to make plans to go to France to pursue her dream.
In December 1920, Bessie Coleman began taking flying lessons at Ecole d’Aviation des Fre`res Caudron located at Le Crotoy, a small town near the English Channel. Her lessons included everything from banked turns to looping the loop to aircraft maintenance. By June 15, 1921, Bessie was issued a license by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. At the age of 29 she had earned the distinction of being the first black woman in the world to become a licensed pilot.
Bessie returned to France in 1922 for lessons to learn the difficult and dangerous air maneuvers for stunts and aerobatics. Upon returning home, she became a barnstormer.
Barnstormers roamed the country and rented cow pastures where they put on their air shows. They called themselves "gypsies" and flew low, zoomed high above the barns, and sometimes flew through barns.
Her daredevil stunts and hair-raising maneuvers earned her the name "Brave Bessie". She primarily flew the Curtiss JN-4D planes and army surplus aircraft left over from World War I. During her trips, she often gave lectures to schools and churches to encourage young black men and women to enter aviation. On one occasion in Waxahachie, she refused to give an exhibition on white school grounds unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance as whites. The request was granted, although the races remained segregated once inside.
She had her first major accident in 1924. On April 30, 1926, she died during a test flight before a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. The airplane did not pull out of a nosedive, somersaulting instead, throwing Bessie to her death. Her body was returned to Chicago, where she made her home. She is buried there in Lincoln Cemetery.
Over the years, recognition of Bessie Coleman’s accomplishments has grown. In 1977 a group of black female student pilots in Indiana organized the Bessie Coleman Aviation Club. In 1990 a street in Chicago was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and May 2, 1992, was declared Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago. In 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in her honor.