Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bessie Coleman, Aviatrix and Stunt Woman

Bessie Coleman was one of the first African-Americans to earn her pilot's license, and the first female. When no-one in America would teach her to fly, she travelled to France.

"I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly." ~ Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in the small town of Atlanta, Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children, born to Susan and George Coleman. Susan was African-American and George was part African-American, part Cherokee Indian. By the time Bessie was born, they had been married for 17 years.

Bessie's parents were sharecroppers and life was arduous in the small town of less than 1,000 people. When Bessie was two, the family moved to Waxahachie, Texas in search of work in the cotton industry, hoping that business would be better. George Coleman purchased a 1/4 acre plot in the black section of town and built a small 3-room house for his family.

Bessie spent happy years in this home, playing on the porch or in the yard, and learning to work in the house and in the fields with her siblings. She began school at 6, and walked four miles every day to go to and from school. Like the rest of the town the schools were segregated, and the town's all-black school consisted of a one-room wooden shack with barely enough paper and pencils to go around. Nevertheless, Bessie established herself as a diligent student who excelled in math.

In 1901 things changed dramatically for the family. Bessie's father George had become tired of the racial barriers that existed in Texas and frequent violence against black people. He decided to move to Oklahoma, know at that time as Indian Territory. He wanted his family to go with him.

Susan could not be convinced to leave, and George departed by himself. Soon after, Bessie's brothers also left home, leaving Susan with four girls under the age of nine, including Bessie. Within days of her husband leaving, Susan found work as a housekeeper. Her employers were a kind family that would give donations of food and clothing to the Coleman girls.

While her mother worked, Bessie took over the responsibility of running the household and caring for her sisters. It was a full-time job, interrupted every year when it was time to pick the cotton harvest; then, the family worked together in the fields.

Next to her mother, Bessie established herself as the leader of the family, and would assure her mother frequently that she was going to "amount to something."

When she was twelve, Bessie was admitted to school, another 1-room establishment where she completed eight grades. In 1910 she took her savings and enrolled in The Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now Langston University), but she was only able to afford one term of studies, and she had to return home.

At home in Texas, she worked as a laundress. Five years later, she left for Chicago, Illinois, to live with her brother Walter and look for more work.

Chicago and the dream of flight

Housing in Chicago in 1915 was deeply segregated, with ninety percent of the African-American community living on the south side, between Twelfth and Thirty-Ninth Street to the north and south, and Lake Michigan and Wentworth Avenue to the east and west. Bessie lived with her brothers Walter and John and was generally happy in Chicago, a city that seemed to be teeming with opportunities.

She found work as a beautician after perfecting her skills as a manicurist, and worked in a diverse and stylish area known as "The Stroll." Bessie still loved reading and found an idol in local businessman Robert Abbott, the editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender.

By 1918, Bessie's mother and her three younger sisters had moved to Chicago to join Bessie and her brothers. During World War I, Walter and John served the U.S. military in France and would return home safely, but in 1919 the city of Chicago erupted in the worst race riots in history.

By this time Bessie had learned a new trade and learned how to live in the city, but after the riots and listening to her brothers talk of French women and their accomplishments (of which Bessie felt she had none), she decided to set out on a new career and become a flier.

Learning to Fly

With her dream in mind, Bessie began talking with leaders in Chicago's African-American community and won the support of Robert Abbott, who agreed to fund her flight school. She could not find anyone to teach her, however, dealing with the double discrimination of being African-American and a woman, and at the suggest of Abbott, she decided to go overseas to get her license.

The French were the world leaders in flight at that time. After securing a passport and visa, Bessie left for France in November 1920. At the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme, Bessie completed a 10-month course in 7 months.

Bessie, courtesy of Corbis Corporation
Learning to fly in a French Nieuport Type 82, Bessie learned such maneuvers as "tail spins, banking and looping the loop." On June 15th, 1921, Bessie received her license from the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI). She was the first black woman to earn at license at this school and the only woman in a class of 62 pilots.

Flying in the U.S.

Bessie trained for three months in France before returning home on September 16th, 1921, where she was met with a surprising amount of press. After assessing her opportunities and deciding to be a stunt pilot and earn money in air shows, Bessie realized she would have to return to France for more training. She completed an advanced training course and visited plane manufacturers in Holland and Germany, then returned home.

Bessie with a reporter
Back in the U.S., Bessie knew she had to establish a persona to attract people to come and see her fly. She spoke grandly of herself and her accomplishments and laid out her goals to reporters, who loved the well-spoken, beautiful Bessie.

She endeavored to be a leader in the field of flight for her race, she informed reporters, and to encourage other African-Americans to become pilots. Her plan was to found a school so other black men and women would not be turned away from training as she was.

The African-American press nicknamed her "Queen Bess," and Bessie's first air show was set for September 3rd, 1922. It was sponsored by Robert Abbott and the Chicago Defender, and billed Bessie as "the world's greatest woman flyer."

Bessie in a promotional picture.
Bessie quickly earned a reputation as a daredevil stunt pilot and parachute jumper and even white newspapers were unable to resist jumping on the bandwagon, printing such headlines as "NEGRESS PILOTS AIRPLANE." Her new York City debut was followed by shows in Chicago and Houston. Bessie became, as she liked to put it, "the most known colored person other than jazz singers."


Flying was not without its mishaps, however, as Bessie learned in 1923 after accepting a used airplane from a businessman in a deal they had made: she agreed to drop leaflets for him, and he would buy her a plane. The plane stalled on its first flight and crashed, leaving Bessie with a broken leg and three broken ribs. She was soon walking again, and just as soon after that, she was back flying.

The job was also not without discrimination. Though Bessie liked to speak of flying in terms of the lack of barriers, telling reporters “The sky is the only place there is no prejudice. Up there, everyone is equal, everyone is free," there was still discrimination on the ground - after all, this was someone who had to travel to France to even find someone who would train her.

When visiting different cities for her shows, including her previous hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, Bessie was angered to find that black people entering the stadium were forced to use a different entrance than the white people. She demanded this would change for her show, and the show's promoters complied.

From then on, that became the standard - she would not perform unless the audience was desegregated, and everyone attending allowed the use the same gates.

Her Own Flight School

For all the shows Bessie appeared in from 1922-25, she kept the goal of opening her own aviation school in the forefront of her mind. Other than her appearances, she tried different ways to raise more money and boost her reputation. When an opportunity was presented she even considered a movie career, briefly - but would reject it upon finding that the role she would be playing was deeply stereotypical, and not an image she was willing to promote.

Bessie toured Florida and Georgia, speaking to black communities about the developing technology of flight and the opportunities in the field. She opened a beauty shop in Orlando to help raise funds for her school, and continued her schedule of stunt performances and parachute jumping.

By 1926 Bessie had purchased her own plane, and had it flown to Jacksonville where she would prepare it for a show on May 1st.


On April 30th Bessie's plane arrived from Jacksonville and she took it up for a test flight with her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills.

With Wills at the controls, Bessie began surveying the terrain below in preparation for her jump the next day. To be able to move around, she was not wearing her seatbelt. Halfway through the flight, a wrench that had been left in the engine's gearbox jammed the engine, and the plane went into a dive that Wills was unable to pull out of.

As the plane began to spin 500 feet from the ground, Bessie was thrown from the plane. She died instantly upon impact with the ground. Wills also died when the plane hit the ground and burst into flames.

Bessie was 34 when she died.


Bessie's funeral in Jacksonville, Florida was attended by over 5,000 people, including black dignitaries.  Her body was then transported by train to Chicago, where 10,000 mourners paid their final respects. She was buried at the Lincoln Cemetery.

After her death, the press printed tributes nationwide. Aviation clubs bearing her name began to pop up, and a black aviator named William Powell, who had taken up flying because of her example, followed through with her dream of starting an aviation school, and in 1929 established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.

Other African-American flyers who either trained at this school or named Bessie as their inspiration including the Tuskegee Airmen, the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos (James Banning and Thomas Allen), Cornelius Coffey, John Robison, Willa Brown and Harold Hurd.

Bessie had become the example and educator she had dreamed of being, even some thirty years prior, when she was still a little girl in a small house in Texas.


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