A Bold Black Woman In Flight
I first became acquainted with the name Bessie Coleman while living in Chicago during the nineties. As the story goes, a thoroughfare known as the Bessie Coleway Highway, which runs from Chicago to Rockford, is one I frequented often. It was named after her by the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1995 to commemorate her legacy and historic achievements.
It wasn’t till recent years that I discovered who Bessie Coleman was. Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 as one of 13 children, Bessie was a pioneering Black aviator who shattered racial and gender barriers by becoming the first female pilot of African-American descent. She was raised in a very poor family by parents who were sharecroppers. Despite these barriers, Coleman was relentless in her determination to one day become a pilot.
In 1915, she relocated to Chicago to live with her brothers. Coleman worked for a short time as a manicurist to begin saving money to support her dreams of becoming a pilot. Deeply inspired and wanting to emulate the flight skills of World War I fighter pilots, she applied to flight school in the U.S. Denied acceptance due to her race, she traveled to France in 1920 to pursue instruction at the Caudron Brother's School of Aviation.
Coleman’s friend Robert Abbott, publisher of the iconic Black newspaper Chicago Defender and one of America’s wealthiest Black Americans was ebullient in his support of her aim. As chronicled in the book “Bessie Coleman — Bold Pilot Who Gave Women Wings,” author Martha London notes:
“Abbott met Coleman when she was working at a barbershop. Abbott and Coleman became long-time friends. He told Coleman to get her pilot's license in France. Coleman took his advice. She decided to study in France. The only problem was Coleman did not know French. The application to the pilot's school had to be in French.”
Following this same story narrative in “The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” author Robert Michaeli shared this:
“Determined to be the African American apostle of flying, Coleman dreamed of opening her own chain of schools that would admit men as well as women, whites as well as blacks. But to that end, she needed her own plane, and for that, she needed more funds. She stayed in Chicago for just a few busy weeks upon her return, just long enough to convince Robert Abbott to give her an even larger grant before she headed back to Europe.”
Coleman earned her flight wings in 1921 after training in France. Upon returning to the U.S., she became a highly recognized figure in the Chicago area, performing in air shows and delivering lectures about her aviator exploits. Coleman was known for her acrobatic, eye-catching flight stunts and passionate encouragement of other Black Americans to pursue careers in aviation.
She has the distinction of becoming the first Black American woman to earn an international pilot's license along with the first woman of any race to conduct a public flight in the U.S. A consummate daredevil, she was also the first Black American to perform a loop-the-loop vertical circle in the sky.
Sadly, Coleman’s flight career was cut short in 1926 at age 34 when she died in a Jacksonville, Florida plane crash. As described in the book The Defender
“On Friday, April 30, the day before the exhibition, Coleman was driven to the airfield by a young protégé, a recent graduate of Howard University, whom she promised to take up later that day, after she made an initial training run. Before taking off with Wills in the driver seat, she knelt before the plane for a brief prayer. They climbed for about twelve minutes until they had reached an altitude of three thousand feet, at which time something went terribly wrong. The plane suddenly flipped over, and Coleman, who was not wearing her harness, was thrown out of the cockpit and sent plummeting to the ground.
The impact left her body “crushed and mangled,” according to The Defender’s correspondent, who witnessed the accident. The plane went into a steep dive, flipping end over end until it crashed through the branches of a pine tree and into the ground near the edge of the airfield. Wills, strapped into the plane, had surely been killed by the impact, but before emergency crews could pull his body from the fuselage, someone at the scene carelessly dropped a lit cigarette, setting the whole pile of oil-soaked wreckage ablaze.”
Three memorial services were held for Coleman — one each in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida along with one in Chicago. At the latter service, famed civil rights leader Ida B. Wells recited a powerful essay highlighting Coleman’s work around racial equality.
Since her untimely death, many have credited Coleman for catalyzing the formation of a number of famous aviation groups. One of the more notable ones, the Blackbirds, were a group of Black stunt pilots that garnered quite a bit of attention in the 1930s by flying in patterns as a group. And in the 1970s, a group a Black women founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.
Bessie Coleman was a source of inspiration for many through her groundbreaking achievements in upending racial and gender barriers to become America’s first Black female pilot. Her historical footprint as a courageous and bold aviator who overcame major odds lives on.
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