She flew high and did amazing things, but Bessie Coleman had to make her yes happen. She was poor and black and female. Society told her, no you can’t, over and over. No. Women can’t pilot a plane. Most emphatically, no, black women can’t become pilots. But Bessie didn’t accept that no.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, to two sharecroppers, Susan and George Coleman, in Atlanta, Texas. Susan was an African American. George descended from African Americans and Choctaw, a Native American people.
The twelfth child of thirteen, Bessie and family, moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when she was young. Picking cotton didn’t pay well. So George left Texas hoping to find better opportunities in Oklahoma. Susan and the children didn’t go with him.
Susan did the best she could, but they were poor. Each child contributed to the family income as they became old enough to work in the cotton fields.
Often, blacks, particularly black girls, weren’t allowed an education in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At twelve, Bessie attended the Missionary Baptist school.
By the time she was eighteen, she saved some money to further her education. She attended the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma, for one term. One term because that was all the money she had.
In 1915, twenty-three-year-old Bessie joined two of her older brothers in Chicago. Once there, she trained and worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbershop.
During World War I (1914-1918), the news and many conversations centered on the new-fangled airplanes and fighter pilots. The first successful flight by the Wright brothers had only happened eleven years earlier. Bessie listened to and read all about the WWI pilots. The stories inspired her to dream.
One of Bessie’s brothers, maybe both, served in the war. He returned and regaled her with stories of daring fighter pilots. He also teased Bessie about the superiority of French women who knew how to fly.
Bessie wanted to fly too.
Bessie applied to aviation schools across America. Not one American school accepted African American applicants. But Bessie knew of at least one place on the planet where she could learn to fly.
Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender, helped her apply to schools abroad.
She worked during the day and studied French at night.
In 1920, Bessie finally had enough money. She attended aviation school in Le Crotoy, France. On June 15, 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale issued a license to her. That made her the first black person in the world to become a licensed pilot. (Even Amelia Earhart didn’t get a license until 1923.)
Bessie returned to the United States later that year. She dreamed of a flying career and earning enough to open a flying school for blacks. But in 1921, there were no jobs for a black female pilot.
In the 1920s, barnstorming shows captured the imagination and pocketbooks of the American people. In barnstorming, circus-like air shows, pilots did loop-the-loops, barrel rolls, and other daring moves. Pilots could make a lot of money barnstorming. So Bessie decided she would learn to do all the aerial stunts. She returned to France in 1922 and during her studies,took lessons from the chief pilot for the Fokker Aircraft Company in Germany.
Bessie returned to America and performed in her first air show at Curtiss Field, in Garden City, New York, on September 3, 1922. The success of this show led to exhibition flights all over the country.
In February 1923, on her way to a fairground in California, the plane stalled at 300 feet and crashed. She broke her leg, some ribs, and suffered cuts to her face. She begged the doctor at the crash site to “patch her up” so she could fly in the scheduled barnstorming.
Dream Interrupted Again
They ground her for a year and a half. During that time, she earned money giving lectures, during which she encouraged African Americans and women to learn how to fly. And she finally earned enough to fulfill part of her dream. She bought her own plane, a Jenny with an OX-5 engine. She still wanted to open a school but didn’t have enough money to do that.
Bessie returned to Texas and in 1925 established her headquarters in Houston. She held her first performance in that city on June 19, 1925.
She gave regular performances after that. In August, her act included the first known black woman to make a parachute jump. Later, when the parachutist backed out of an engagement, Bessie strapped on the parachute and made the jump herself.
Bessie’s hair raising flying stunts and parachuting earned her the nickname, “Queen Bess,” and “Brave Bess.” She made sure she dressed the part. For her public appearances, she wore a long coat, leather boots, a Sam Browne officer’s belt, and often her pilot’s cap as well.
Throughout her career, Bessie used her celebrity position to fight against discrimination. Once she returned to her hometown, Waxahachie, to perform. The show was to be held on the grounds of the school for whites. The organizers planned to have the “usual” segregated entrances—one for blacks and one for whites. Bessie refused to fly unless blacks could use the same entrance as whites. The organizers allowed one entrance, though the seating to watch the show remained segregated.
Another time, she stormed off the set of a movie based on her life story, over her refusal to play to “Uncle Tom” stereotypes.
Bessie had a show scheduled in Jacksonville, Florida, in the spring of 1926. She arrived first. Her agent, William Wills, who was also her mechanic and a pilot himself, delivered her plane from Texas. Mechanical problems caused a pair of unscheduled stops, so he arrived later than expected in Jacksonville. The other pilots at Jacksonville’s Paxon Field cringed at the plane’s “poorly maintained” engine.
Bessie was determined to perform in the upcoming show. On April 30, 1926, she and Wills took the plane out for a test flight. Will sat in the front cockpit and controlled the plane. Bessie sat in the back. She didn’t buckle her seat belt so she could easily scan the ground for good jumping sites.
Witnesses reported the plane suddenly sped up and nose-dived, before flipping upside-down at about 500 feet. Bessie fell out of the cockpit and died upon impact. The plane continued its uncontrollable behavior and crashed, killing Wills.
The charred remains of the plane prevented a full investigation. However, investigators found a loose wrench jammed the gears, which led to the crash.
White publications praised Wills, who was white, for “teaching Bessie how to fly.”
Hundreds of admirers attended Bessie’s funeral in Jacksonville, Florida. The Black Press gave Bessie a powerful send-off. Others held memorial services in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago.
They buried her in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery.
Bessie’s dream of operating a flight school never materialized. However, after her death, folks organized aero clubs in her honor all over the country. The flying clubs sponsored and held the first all black air show in America on Labor Day in 1931. It attracted 15,000 spectators.
In 1990, they renamed a street in Chicago Bessie Coleman Drive. The city declared May 2, 1992 Bessie Coleman day.
The US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor in 1995.
This year, the US Mint issued the Bessie Coleman quarter in its American Women Quarters Program.
History tried to forget Bessie Coleman, but people like Ida B Wells and William J. Powell kept her memory alive.
Even today, there are those who would rob her of her place in history. MSNBC reported that nine-year-old Alex Williams picked Bessie Coleman to be the subject of her Black History Month Hero report. However, her third-grade teacher denied Alex her choice because Bessie “wasn’t a hero.” (Link to video below.)
Bessie Coleman’s story, while tragically short, is an inspiration because she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She took charge and forged her own path in aviation and in life. She is 100% an American hero.
Had you heard of Bessie Coleman before? Do you think she’s a hero?
- 1. Biography.com
- 2. Biography.com
- 3. womenshistory.org
- 4. Smithsonian YouTube Channel
- 5. MSNBC YouTube Channel
- 6. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club
- 7. Rootsweb
Where you can learn more:
Queen Bess – Daredevil Aviator, By Doris L. Rich, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1993
Brave 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
Top image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Second image: www.ctie.monash.edu.au, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Final image: National Air and Space Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons