People & Events
Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)
Bessie Coleman, the first African American female pilot, grew up in a
cruel world of poverty and discrimination. The year after her birth in
Atlanta, Texas, an African American man was tortured and then burned to death
in nearby Paris for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl. The incident was
not unusual; lynchings were endemic throughout the South. African Americans
were essentially barred from voting by literacy tests. They couldn't ride in
railway cars with white people, or use a wide range of public facilities set
aside for whites. When young Bessie first went to school at the age of six, it
was to a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk from her home. Often there
wasn't paper to write on or pencils to write with.
When Coleman turned 23 she headed to Chicago to live with two of her older
brothers, hoping to make something of herself. But the Windy City offered
little more to an African American woman than did Texas. When Coleman decided
she wanted to learn to fly, the double stigma of her race and gender meant that
she would have to travel to France to realize her dreams.
It was soldiers returning from World War I with wild tales of flying exploits
who first interested Coleman in aviation. She was also spurred on by her
brother, who taunted her with claims that French women were superior to African
American women because they could fly. In fact, very few American women of any
race had pilot's licenses in 1918. Those who did were predominantly white and
wealthy. Every flying school that Coleman approached refused to admit her
because she was both black and a woman. On the advice of Robert Abbott, the
owner of the "Chicago Defender" and one of the first African American
millionaires, Coleman decided to learn to fly in France.
Coleman learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago loop, withdrew the
savings she had accumulated from her work as a manicurist and the manager of a
chili parlor, and with the additional financial support of Abbott and another
African American entrepreneur, she set off for Paris from New York on November
20, 1920. It took Coleman seven months to learn how to fly. The only
non-Caucasian student in her class, she was taught in a 27-foot biplane that
was known to fail frequently, sometimes in the air. During her training
Coleman witnessed a fellow student die in a plane crash, which she described as
a "terrible shock" to her nerves. But the accident didn't deter her: In June
1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded
her an international pilot's license.
When Coleman returned to the U.S. in September 1921, scores of reporters turned
out to meet her. The "Air Service News" noted that Coleman had become "a
full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race." She was invited as a guest of
honor to attend the all-black musical "Shuffle Along." The entire audience,
including the several hundred whites in the orchestra seats, rose to give the
first African American female pilot a standing ovation.
Over the next five years Coleman performed at countless air shows. The first
took place on September 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island. The "Chicago
Defender" publicized the event saying the "wonderful little woman" Bessie
Coleman would do "heart thrilling stunts." According to a reporter from
Kansas, as many as 3,000 people, including local dignitaries, attended the
event. Over the following years, Coleman used her position of prominence to
encourage other African Americans to fly. She also made a point of refusing to
perform at locations that wouldn't admit members of her race.
Coleman took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville,
Florida. Together with a young Texan mechanic called William Wills, Coleman
was preparing for an air show that was to have taken place the following day.
At 3,500 feet with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got
caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plummeted toward earth.
Coleman, who wasn't wearing a seat-belt, fell to her death.
About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to the first African American
woman aviator, filing past her coffin in Chicago South's Side. Her funeral was
attended by several prominent African Americans and it was presided over by Ida
B. Wells, an outspoken advocate of equal rights. But despite the massive
turnout and the tributes paid to Coleman during the service, several black
reporters believed that the scope of Coleman's accomplishments had never truly
been recognized during her lifetime. An editorial in the "Dallas Express"
stated, "There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely
sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such."
Coleman has not been forgotten in the decades since her death. For a number of
years starting in 1931, black pilots from Chicago instituted an annual fly over
of her grave. In 1977 a group of African American women pilots established the
Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. And in 1992 a Chicago City council resolution
requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. The
resolution noted that "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."