FlyingTypers continues its groundbreaking series covering the courageous and pioneering women of air cargo and aviation with a look back at pioneering aviatrix Bessie Coleman.
In America, February celebrates Black History Month and March celebrates Women’s History Month, which beggars the question of where to place someone as historically significant as Bessie Coleman.
One of 13 children, Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, both African American sharecroppers. The family was poor and could afford very little, and once the children were of age they were expected to contribute to the household income.
But Bessie had high-flying hopes. She attended Langston University’s predecessor, the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but couldn’t finish due to a lack of funds. At 23 years old, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers and work as a manicurist. Her fascination with aviation was sparked in Chicago, where her brothers enticed her with stories of French women flying planes in World War I.
Of course, when Bessie tried to enroll herself in flight programs stateside, she was turned down. A woman aviator was difficult enough to stomach, but a black woman aviator? One can only imagine the mockery and derision she faced in 1920.
As a manicurist, Bessie had contacts with many of the black elite of Chicago. She quickly befriended Robert S. Abbot, publisher and owner of the Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires, who encouraged her to go to France to learn to fly. He, along with others, helped fund her exodus, and she quickly learned French in preparation.
On November 20, 1920, Bessie Coleman left for France from New York City. She enrolled at Ecole d’Aviation des Freres in Le Crotoy, France, the only African American in her class. She learned how to fly in a rickety Nieuport Type 82 biplane and within seven months received her pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She briefly returned to New York City in September 1921 and was celebrated in the black press—the Air Service News called her “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.”
Bessie realized she wanted to make her living as a pilot, but in order to do so needed additional training as a “barnstormer,” or stunt pilot—commercial aviation was still a decade away from becoming a reality. She returned to Europe, studying acrobatic aviation in France and then the Netherlands, where she studied under pioneering aircraft manufacturer Anthony H.G. Fokker, otherwise known as “The Flying Dutchman.” She moved on to Germany, where she received additional training from one of the chief pilots of the Fokker Corporation.
Her first air show took place on September 3, 1922, at the famous Curtiss Airfield in Garden City, Long Island. The event was sponsored by her old friend Robert S. Abbot and honored the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. She was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flyer.”
Over the next five years “Queen Bess,” as she was called, performed aerial stunts across the United States. She always encouraged the African Americans attending her shows to learn how to fly, and refused to perform in venues that denied admission to African Americans. When she was offered a role in the feature-length film Shadow and Sunshine, she accepted in the hopes it would help her fund her dream of an African American aviation school. However, when she learned her very first scene in the film would depict her in bedraggled clothes, she refused the role. Doris Rich, author of Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, wrote “she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”
“The air is the only place free from prejudices.”
— Bessie Coleman
Eventually, Queen Bess made enough money to purchase her own plane: a rather old Curtiss JN-4. It was only a few days after she received the plane that it stalled at 300 feet and nose-dived, crashing into the ground. With broken ribs, a broken leg, and several lacerations, Bessie was relegated to a hospital bed for 3 months.
Bessie returned to her home state of Texas in June of 1925. She performed on June 19th, the anniversary of the day African Americans in Texas were granted their freedom. After her show the spectators were boarded onto five passenger planes for a complimentary night flight over Houston—the Houston Reporter remarked that it was “the first time [the] colored public of the South ha[d] been given the opportunity to fly.”
While flying was one of Bessie Coleman’s dreams, her greatest wish was to open an aviation school for African Americans. She told the Houston-Post Dispatch that she wanted to “make Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school.” She later opened a beauty shop in Florida to try and raise funds, and gathered enough money to purchase an old Army surplus plane from World War I to continue her stunt flying.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie and her mechanic William D. Wills boarded her new plane to rehearse for a May Day air show the following day. The pièce de résistance of her act was to be a daring parachute jump from 2,500 feet. Wills was piloting the plane when it fell into a tailspin and flipped upside down. Bessie was not wearing her seat belt and tragically fell out of the plane to her death. Wills tried but could not regain control of the plane and also lost his life.
It took almost half a century, but in 1977 the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was formed by a group of African American pilots from Chicago. Every April 30th they fly over Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago to airdrop flowers on her grave.
Today, African Americans can take great pride in women like Mae Carol Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which in 2012 flew with an all-woman African American crew. But we must not forget about the pioneering Queen Bess, whose lofty dreams and unwavering determination paved the way for everyone else who followed. As Lieutenant William J. Powell said, “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”