|Bessie Coleman in the stylish pilot uniform of her own design.|
Bessie Coleman seemed destined by birth to remain earthbound, poor, and obscure when she was born on January 26, 1892 as the 10th of 14 children of sharecroppers near Atlanta, Texas. Her father was an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe in Indian Territory just across the border to the north. Her mother was Black. In search of better prospects the family soon moved to Waxahachie south of Dallas where the girl spent most of her childhood and teen years.
When she was 9 her father abandoned the family to return to tribal lands in Oklahoma leaving her impoverished family to struggle. Despite all obstacles, including having to walk four miles each day to an inferior and segregated one room school, Bessie showed herself to be an eager student who excelled at reading and enjoyed math. She was also dedicated to the family’s Missionary Baptist Church, in which she was baptized.
Every year her schooling was interrupted to pick cotton with the rest of her family. Her mother let Bessie keep part of her earnings from the harvest which she saved so that at age 18 she was able to enroll at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston, Oklahoma. But she had to drop out of school after just one semester when her savings ran out. Back in Waxahachie she found some work in local beauty shops and returned to the cotton fields every year.
But Coleman was ambitious to escape the life that loomed ahead of her—inevitable marriage to another sharecropper, repeated childbirth, and endless drudgery. In 1916 she left Waxachachie behind forever at the age of 23 to join a brother who had joined the Great Migration to Chicago. In the city she found work as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbershop. Pretty, personable, and smart, she attracted the attention and support of some of her clients.
They included a cream of the Chicago Black elite, including after the end of the Great War in 1918, Black veterans including some pioneering military pilots. Entranced by their stories, Coleman decided she wanted to fly, too.
But the obstacles once again seemed overwhelming. No American flight schools would train Blacks and she knew of none that would teach women. Even the Black pilots she had met declined to teach her. Her only option was to go to France where they had all trained. With luck her manicure customers and admirers included Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, America’s premier Black owned newspaper, and banker Jesse Binga who bankrolled her trip to France.
In preparation for her adventure Coleman took crash course in French at the Chicago Berlitz School.
|Coleman's International Pilot's License.|
Coleman arrived in Paris in November of 1920. As she expected, she was allowed to enroll in a French flying school with no difficulty and was soon learning in a primitive Nieuport Type 82 biplane. She was a quick learner. On June 15, 1921 she became simultaneously the first Black woman and the first Native American woman to be granted an International Pilot’s License from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Not content with that achievement she stayed for two more months in France to hone her skills and log time in the air under the advanced tutelage of from a former French ace.
Thanks to hoopla stirred up by her sponsor at the Defender, Coleman found herself a minor celebrity when she came ashore in New York that September. Hailed as the “dusky queen of the air,” she almost immediately launched a national speaking tour hoping to raise money for her own aircraft.
While on tour she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Black Parramore neighborhood of Orlando, Florida and his wife Viola. The couple offered Coleman a home in the church parsonage and became surrogate parents to her. It would become the anchor of her life in the frequent wanderings of the rest of her life. She even opened her own beauty shop to finance her flying.
The lecture circuit was only a stop-gap to Coleman’s goal of becoming a full-time professional pilot. Two of the avenues of employment were barred to her—military service or becoming an airmail pilot. Her only hope was to become a barnstorming pilot. But that would require her to further sharpen her skills as a stunt pilot.
In February 1922 she returned to Paris for two more months of advanced stunt flying instruction from a French ace. Then she traveled to the Netherlands to meet legendary aircraft designer Anthony Fokker who was so impressed with her that he sent her on to his airplane factories in Germany where she received further instruction from his top test pilots. By the time she sailed for home Coleman was probably the best trained female pilot yet.
When she returned to New York to a new round of press attention, Abbott and the Defender sponsored her appearance at a special air show at Curtis Field on Long Island on September 3, 1922 in honor of World War I veterans off the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment. A few weeks after that auspicious debut, she headlined a special air show at Chicago’s Checkerboard Field, now Midway Airport.
She flew at first in mostly rented or borrowed Curtis JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes, the slow and lumbering staple of barnstormers.
Coleman had a very successful barnstorming career for the next five years. She was an expert in self-promotion, not hesitating to use either her good looks or out-sized vivacious personality to charm even hostile reporters. She broke into mainstream white press and was profiled in magazine cover stories and featured in newsreels.
She snapped up an opportunity to star in her own feature film financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. But her high hopes for the movie Shadow and Sunshine were dashed on the first day of shooting when she was handed as script with an opening scene of her dressed in tatters and barefoot walking down a road with a knapsack. Coleman who even as a sharecropper’s daughter was at pains to be as clean and stylish as she could, was deeply offended by the depiction which played to all of the racial stereotypes promoted by the White culture. She walked off the set and turned her back on the promise of movie stardom.
Coleman hoped to give up barnstorming and open her own flight school for young Blacks of both sexes. She had hoped the film would finance that plan. Without it she resigned herself to another season or two of touring to raise the money she needed.
In April of 1926 Coleman purchased a new—for her—Jenny bi-plane in Dallas. She dispatched her trusted mechanic, 24 year old William D. Willis to pick up the plane and fly it to meet her in Jacksonville, Florida. Willis found that the well used Jenny was in poor condition. In fact he made three forced landings on the flight to Florida. He urged Coleman not to use the plane until he had time to give it a complete overhaul. But Coleman had a contract to perform on May 1 and did not have time for that. Instead she had Willis take her up for a trial flight on April 30 to familiarize herself with the plane. Because the scheduled performance included her making a parachute jump from the plane, she was in the observer’s seat and Willis at the controls. For some reason Coleman was not strapped into her seat.
Ten minutes after takeoff at an altitude of 2000 feet the plane shuddered, lurched, and then rolled over into an uncontrolled dive. Coleman was thrown from her seat and fell to her instant death. Willis could not regain control of the aircraft and died in a fiery crash. It was determined that a loose wrench slid into the gearbox.
Dead at just 34 years of age, Coleman shared the fate of many pioneering flyers. Aviation was still a dangerous business. She was widely mourned, but quickly forgotten outside the Black community as Jazz Age White America quickly turned its attention to the next shiny object.
World War I veteran Lt. William J. Powell, a former infantry officer who dreamed of becoming a flyer was inspired by Coleman. Shortly after getting his own pilot’s license Powell formed the Bessie Coleman Aero Club to promote Black aviation in 1929 and commemorated her in his 1934 book, Black Wings.
Coleman was re-discovered by a wider audience with the rising interest in Black History. She has been honored by roads named for her at Chicago’s O’Hare and three other airports around the world. The street in front of her Tampa parsonage home has also been re-named for her and the site house on Chicago’s South Side where she lived with her brother has been plaqued by the Chicago Cultural Center. The United States Post Office honored her with a first class stamp in its Black Heritage series in 1995. And in 2006 Coleman was belatedly inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.