The amazing Bessie Coleman was America’s first Black, female pilot. She did what many considered impossible and became a fearless, stunt pilot, known around the globe. No one would train her in America, so Bessie enrolled in a French prestigious flight school. In 1921, Bessie became the first American Black woman to be given a pilot’s license.
Bessie was number 10 in a family of 13 children. She attended a small segregated school and excelled at maths and reading, but was often taken out of class to help pick cotton.
In 1901, Bessie’s father, whose ancestors were Native American, moved back to Oklahoma in an attempt to escape discrimination, when Bess was only nine-years-old. Susan Coleman refused to go with her husband, preferring to remain in Texas. Bessie helped her mother pick cotton and wash laundry. She saved enough money to attend the Coloured Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, but was forced to drop out after just one semester, through lack of funds.
In 1915, Bessie, aged 23, went to live with an older brother in Chicago. She took up work as a manicurist and became one of the most proficient manicurists on her side of town. Then World War I fighter pilots began making headlines.
Her brothers had served in the French Air Force and would tease black Bessie about how the French women had more freedom. “They can even fly planes.”
Bessie was again and again denied admission to any aviation school she applied for in the United States, because she was female and a woman of colour. She refused to give up her dream of becoming a pilot, so she saved her money, learnt French and travelled to France. There she was finally accepted into a famous flight school Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron. Bessie was the only student of colour in her class.
During her 10 months in the school, Bessie became known for her risk-taking as she mastered the loop and tailspin. Her ability for making the figure 8 in her airplane brought her fame. Black philanthropists Robert Abbot, founder of the Chicago Defender and Jessie Binga, a banker, assisted with Bessie’s tuition.
Bessie perfected the art of not only parachuting from her aircraft but also walked out on the wings. In 1921, Bessie was awarded an international pilot license by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She was the first American woman to do so, in an era where women had only limited rights.
The Amazing Bessie Coleman Returns to America
The amazing Bessie Coleman spent a year in France, Germany and the Netherlands completing courses in stunt flying. Bess then returned to America as a headliner. Incredible Bess Coleman performed her first public flight by an African American woman in September, 1922.
Bessie took the crowds by storm, performing her mid-flight maneouvers and parachuting from the aircraft. This was post-war and a time of the rise of the Flappers, but women were still limited in what they could achieve, particularly if they were coloured.
There is no doubt that Bessie Coleman was inspired by the work of Ida B. Wells, who in 1913 had founded the nation’s first Black women’s club, focused specifically on suffrage. However, the reality of Black women being able to vote in elections would not happen until 1965 and not hold a political office until 1968.
The Amazing Bessie Coleman Nicknames
The age of commercial flying was still in its infancy and a decade away from public acceptance. The only way for Bess to make a living in the air was to continue as a stunt flier. Bessie’s race and gender precluded her from applying to become a commercial pilot.
As Bessie soared across the American skies she earned the nicknames, ‘Brave Bessie’, ‘Queen Bess’ and ‘The Only Race Aviatrix in the World’. Her goal was to encourage African American woman to reach for their dreams. To the very end, she lived up to her nicknames.
Bessie Owned her Own Plane
Through hard work and determination, the amazing Bessie Coleman saved enough money to purchase her own plane. Bess toured the country giving flight lessons, performing in flight shows and encouraging African Americans and women to learn to fly.
Through bravery and persistence Bessie reached remarkable heights, in every sense of the word. Her dream was to own her own plane and open a flight school. She gave speeches and showed films of her aerobatics and is reported as saying “The air is the only place free from prejudice”.
No Uncle Tom Stuff
The amazing Bessie Coleman was known as a brazen and glamourous woman, mingling with the rich and famous, such as the African Prince Kojo from the Kingdom of Dahomey, the beautiful singer, Josephine Baker and actor William ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. However, Queen Bess never forgot her roots and refused to perform for any audience that did not allow coloured people to attend. More than that, the crowd had to be allowed to enter the area through the same entrance.
A Hollywood director wanted to make a film of her life, but she refused when he wanted to major on her early life as being one of poverty in a coloured family. She refused, saying “No Uncle Tom stuff for me.”
The Fatal Accident
Performing in front of 10,000 people, Bess nose-dived 300 feet into the ground. She survived the accident with a broken leg, a few cracked ribs and cuts to her face, but it would be three-years before she could return to the skies.
Bessie was touring as a speaker and was taking to the skies less frequently. In 1926, she planned an air show in Florida. The day before the show, Queen Bess, aged only 34, went on a practice run with a young pilot, William Wills. She was looking for a safe place to parachute down during the show.
Ten minutes into the flight the engine stop working when a loose wrench got stuck in the engine controls. The plane flipped over, out of control and Bess, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the passenger seat. She fell 2,000 feet to her death. Wills also died on impact, when the plane hit the earth.
So many good pilots have had tragic endings and amazing Bessie Coleman was no exception. Only those who loved and lived with these pilots know the agony and tragic grief of such a sudden loss.
In 1931, the Challenger Pilot’s Association of Chicago started a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave each year. By 1977, African American women pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. The focus of this club is to promote aviation awareness in the black community and to encourage their involvement in aviation.
In 1992, the Chicago City printed a postage stamp in her honour. “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands, even millions, of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude, and her determination to succeed.”
In 2006, Queen Bess was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Her voice lives on as many young, black women realize their dreams, just as Bess did.
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