Happy Birthday Bessie Coleman!
On January 26, 1892 Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. Coleman was born into a large family, being one of thirteen children. Both her parents worked as sharecroppers but her father, who was Native American, left home when Coleman was young in order to look for better work opportunities in Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Coleman’s mother picked cotton and took in laundry to keep supporting their large family.
Coleman’s mother encouraged Coleman to go to school when it was possible. She first went to school at the age of six, in a one-room wooden shack that was a four-mile walk from her house. Most times there was not even enough paper and pencils for the all of the students.
When Coleman was 12 years old she started at the Missionary Baptist Church. When she graduated she left for the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Unfortunately, due to financial problems she only completed one semester. She returned to Texas and worked as a laundress.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Coleman moved in with two of her brothers in Chicago. She wanted to accomplish more than she was able to in Texas. Upon arriving in Chicago she went to beauty school and started working as a manicurist. She met many “elite” Chicago residents in this position.
Soon talk of aviation peaked Coleman’s interest. Soldiers were coming home from overseas talking of European women flying planes in World War I. She began reading stories of World War I pilots and was eager to know more. Her brother pushed her further by teasing her about European women’s superiority to American women because of their ability to fly planes.
She was turned down at every school she applied to in the United States because not only was she a woman, but she was African American. A contact she gained through her position as a manicurist, Robert S. Abbott, pushed Coleman to study aviation in France, at a school she would actually be admitted. During this time she started a new job as a chili restaurant manager. While managing the restaurant she studied French at the Berlitz School. Coleman was finally able to leave for France in 1920, with the help of multiple funders.
Seven months later, in June of 1921, Coleman earned her international pilots license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She was the first African American woman to earn her pilots license. She studied with a French pilot for several months after acquiring her license until she returned to the New York in September of 1921.
The black press celebrated her accomplishment upon her arrival but the mainstream press ignored the story. She quickly went back to Europe to study stunt flying in France, the Netherlands and Germany, returning again to the United States in 1922.
Soon after her arrival she was wanted as a stunt flyer in an air show in Long Island. People were calling Coleman the, “world’s greatest woman flyer”. Weeks later she flew in an air show in Chicago, catapulting her to fame across the United States. Coleman was the first African-American woman in America to fly for the public.
Wanting to encourage other African Americans to fly she announced her plans to open an African American flying school, but first she needed funds. She opened a beauty school in Florida to help raise money. As another way to raise money she would often lecture at schools and churches about her story and her cause.
Coleman was dedicated to fighting for racial equality in the United States, refusing to perform anywhere that would not admit African American patrons. Because of her rising fame Coleman was offered a movie role, but she would later refuse because the role was a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” character.
In 1923 Coleman was able to buy a World War I surplus Army plane. Days after purchasing the place she crashed suffering some broken bones. Finally in June of 1924 she was able to buy another plane.
On April 30th of 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida Coleman embarked on what would be her last flight. Coleman and a mechanic went up for a test flight, preparing for a May Day Celebration that was scheduled by the Negro Welfare League for the next day.
Coleman was not wearing her seat belt, as she wanted to see the ground to help plan her stunts. During the flight a loose wrench got wedged in an open gearbox, blocking the controls. Coleman died being thrown from the plane at 1,000 feet, her life ended at the young age of 34. The plane crashed and the mechanic was also killed.
Coleman’s memorial was well attended in Jacksonville two days later. She was buried in Chicago, where there was another crowded memorial. Coleman’s legacy has lived on. Soon after her passing black flyers founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs. In 1975, black women pilots founded the Bessie Aviators organization. Later in 1990, Chicago renamed a road for Bessie Coleman near the O’Hare International Airport. Soon after, Lambert – St. Louis International Airport had a mural created that honored “Black Americans in Flight” that included Bessie Coleman. Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York in 2002; where she will be forever remember for her pioneering accomplishments.
Happy Birthday Bessie!