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Bessie Coleman, born January 26, 1892 and died April 30, 1926, was an early American civil aviator. She was the first African-American woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot license. She earned her pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, and was the first black person to earn an international pilot’s license.
Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman worked in the cotton fields at a young age while also studying in a small segregated school. She attended one term of college at Langston University. Coleman developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight trainingopportunities in the United States, so she saved and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.
She then became a high-profile pilot in notoriously dangerous air shows in the United States. She was popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie, and hoped to start a school for African-American fliers. Coleman died in a plane crash in 1926. Her pioneering role was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African-American and Native-American communities.
At the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I. She took a second job at a chili parlor to save money in hopes of becoming a pilot. American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor blacks, so Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Abbot publicized Coleman’s quest in his newspaper and she received financial sponsorship from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.
Bessie Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz Language Schools in Chicago and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.”
On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first black woman and first Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the first black person and first Native American to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and, in September 1921, she sailed for America. She became a media sensation when she returned to the U.S.
With the age of commercial flight still a decade or more in the future, Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the then still early technology of airplanes for paying audiences. But, to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe.
She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation. She then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess”, as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regimentof World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.
Six weeks later, she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome – now the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve.
The thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. She also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
Committed to promoting aviation and combating racism, Coleman spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans. She absolutely refused to participate in aviation events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans.
In the 1920s, she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola on a speaking tour in Orlando, Florida, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street in the neighbourhood of Parramore. A local street was renamed “Bessie Coleman” Street in her honour in 2013. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and Coleman opened a beauty shop in Orlando to earn extra money to buy her own plane.
Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled, Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks”, wrote Doris Rich. It’s tempting to draw parallels between me and Ms. Coleman . . .[but] I point to Bessie Coleman and say here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model for all humanity, the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.
Coleman would not live long enough to establish a school for young black aviators but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African-American men and women. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings (1934), dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.
Talkin’ About Bessie: Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes
Soar along with Bessie Coleman in this inspirational tale of a woman whose determination reached new heights.Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was always being told what she could & couldn’t do. In an era when Jim Crow laws and segregation were a way of life, it was not easy to survive. Bessie didn’t let that stop her. Although she was only 11 when the Wright brothers took their historic flight, she vowed to become the first African -American female pilot. Her sturdy faith and determination helped her overcome obstacles of poverty, racism, and gender discrimination. Innovatively told through a series of monologues.
Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of “Brave Bessie” Coleman by Reeve Lindbergh
As a young black woman in the 1920s, Bessie Coleman’s chances of becoming a pilot were slim. But she never let her dream die and became the first licensed African-American aviator. Reeve Lindbergh honors her memory with a poem that sings of her accomplishment. With bold illustrations by Pamela Paparone, Nobody Owns the Sky will inspire readers to follow their dreams.
Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden
When Bessie Coleman was a child, she wanted to be in school — not in the cotton fields of Texas, helping her family earn money. She wanted to be somebody significant in the world. So Bessie did everything she could to learn under the most challenging of circumstances. At the end of every day in the fields she checked the foreman’s numbers — made sure his math was correct. And this was just the beginning of a life of hard work and dedication that really paid off: Bessie became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license. She was somebody.