Women of History: Bessie Coleman

For this edition of “Women of History”, I’m going to get out of the Medieval period and journey back into the 19th century.  Our topic today is Bessie Coleman, a woman who broke barriers and was a pretty good pilot to boot.

Bessie was born on January 26, 1892, so today just so happens to be the 126th anniversary of her birth.  She was born in Atlanta, Texas to George and Susan Coleman but raised in Waxahachie, Texas.  When she went to school due to her mixed racial heritage (Native American and African-American) she was forced to go to segregated one room school. She excelled in school, completing all eight years offered at the time.  When she wasn’t at school, she helped her mother harvest cotton.  Both her parents were farm laborers, but Bessie grew closer to her mother after her father left when she was 12 to find more opportunities in Native American Territory.

When she got older she was awarded a scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church school.  She later enrolled in Langston UNiversity (then known as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.) but only was able to complete a single term due to not being able to afford it.

When she turned 23 she and a brother moved to Chicago, and it was there that she found her calling.  While she worked as a manicurist she would hear stories about flying from returning pilots from WWI.  She decided she wanted to earn her pilot’s license and got a second job to save up for it.  She hit a large obstacle when she found out that American flight schools would not accept her (due to her race and gender).  However she found support in publisher Robert S. Abbott and Banker Jesse Binga and was able to study abroad.  She attended classes to learn french so she could attend aviation school in France.

She arrived in France in 1920 to attend flight school and seven months later on June 15, 1921 she earned her international aviation license.  She was the first woman of African-American heritage to earn her license as well as the first Native American.   She then went further and took advanced piloting lessons, and made visits around europe to different aircraft designers to better learn her craft.

To earn a living, she became a stunt pilot, going by the stage name of “Queen Bess” and was quite a draw at aviation shows. She saved up and opened her own beauty ship in Orlando, Florida to save up money to fund her new dream of having her own aviation school.

She found herself still facing racial issues.  At the height of her fame she was offered a role in a feature film, but the scenes she was asked to film contained racial stereotypes she refused to propagate.  Her strong stance at not allowing race determine her future helped inspire future pilots and activists.

Sadly, Bessie never lived to see her aviation school open.  She was killed in an aviation accident on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida.  She took to the air with her assistant William D. Wills piloting so she could oversee the field for a show.  A wench got stuck in the controls, causing the plane to flip over.  Bessie was thrown from the cockpit, and fell to her death.  Wills crashed nearby was killed by the impact.  Matters were further complicated when a distressed friend of the two accidentally tossed a cigarette where some gasoline had landed and the crash site went up in flames.

Even in death she fought against racial inequality.  The Florida Times-Union out of Jacksonville, Florida reported the death of Wills, and had Bessie as an afterthought and put the article on a back page despite the fact the crash happened within its limits.  The Chicago Defender had it as front page news and equally honored both pilots while recognizing the racism that defined some views of Bessie and the crash.  The Defender, known for its positive reporting of African-Americans was actually banned in some places.

In 1929, Lt. William J. Powell established an aviation school named in Bessie’s honor.  The Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California would later host the first all-African-american air show in 1931.  Powell continued to be a civil rights activist though his life.

Bessie would also be honored by an annual flyover on the anniversary of her death (since 1931), an US Postage stamp in 1995,  inductions to the Texas and National (2006) Aviation Hall of Fames, several schools, and was runner-up in the 1998 decision to make a $1 coin (she lost to Sacagawea ).  Last year, she was honored by Google with a doodle on their search engine homepage on her 125th birthday

Bessie leaves behind a legacy of can-do behavior and not letting others keep you from getting your dream.  She worked hard to accomplish her dreams, and she found a way to get it, despite the very real obstacles that were thrown her way simply because she was biracial and female.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Bessie Coleman

The Florida Times-Union image of the article announcing the death of Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman: Flying the Blues (blog)

The Official Bessie Coleman Website

Moonlight Mint: Bessie Coleman 2001 “golden dollar”

The Independent:  Bessie Coleman: First African-American woman to get International Pilot License

Bessie Colemen (National Aviation Hall of Fame)

Bessie Coleman (Texas Aviation Hall of Fame)