Thursday, September 18, 2008


BESSIE COLEMAN (1892-1926) was the first black person to become an airplane pilot and the first American of any race or gender to hold an international pilot license.

Born in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children. Her parents, George and Susan Coleman, were sharecroppers, and young Bessie made a vow to one day “amount to something”. She walked four miles each day to her all-black, one-room school. She loved to read and became an outstanding math student. In 1901, George grew tired of the racial barriers in Texas and went to Oklahoma, but did not take his family.

Bessie graduated from high school and had saved enough money to pay for only one semester at the Colored Agricultural Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. After that semester, she went to Chicago at the age of 23. Coleman lived with her brothers and worked with them at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. It wasn’t long before she became interested in the aviation field after hearing tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. Determined to become a pilot, she quit her job and applied to various aeronautics schools around the country.

She was repeatedly rejected because of racist and sexist policies. With the encouragement of Robert S. Abbott, founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, and financial assistance from Jesse Binga, founder and president of Chicago’s Binga State Bank, Coleman took French lessons and went to France to study aviation and obtain her pilot’s license. She graduated in June 1921 from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, specializing in parachuting and stunt flying.

Coleman returned to America in September of that year and instantly became a media sensation in black and white press. In 1922, she participated at her first airshow, in Long Island. In Los Angeles, California, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1922. Her barnstorming achievements won acclaim from everyone that saw her flying exhibitions. She became known as “Brave Bessie” for her daring stunts, and later “Queen Bess”. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” The press often criticized her for her opportunistic nature, but she gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would always complete a difficult stunt.

Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by 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. Doris Rich wrote, “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.”

At the age of thirty-four, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida, preparing for an exhibition the following day. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying a plane she had recently purchased for the airshow, and she was in the other seat. Coleman didn’t put her seatbelt on because she was planning a parachute jump and wanted to look over the cockpit to examine the terrain. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a planned nosedive, instead accelerating into a tailspin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 500 feet and died instantly when she hit the ground. Wills was unable to gain control of the plane, and it plummeted to the ground. He died upon impact, and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it, causing the plane to spin out of control.

Her funeral, on May 2, 1926, was attended by over 5,000 mourners, including Ida B. Wells, among other prominent members of black society in Jacksonville. Three days later, another service was held in Orlando where thousands more attended the funeral. On May 5, a memorial was held in Chicago, and an estimated 10,000 people filed past the coffin all day and night. She was buried in Lincoln Cemetery.

In 1927, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up around the country. On Labor Day 1931, the clubs sponsored the first all-black air show, which attracted over 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Coleman’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. In 1995, Coleman was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame. In November 2000, Bessie was inducted in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. She is the subject of “Barnstormer,” a musical debuting October 20-21 at the National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival in New York.

No comments: