Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the first African American to earn the coveted international pilot's license, issued in Paris (June 15, 1921) by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born.
When George Coleman's hopes for a better living in Waxahachie remained unfulfilled, and with five of his nine living children still at home, he proposed moving again, this time to Indian territory in Oklahoma. There, on a reservation, his heritage of three Native American grandparents would give him the civil rights denied to both African Americans and Native Americans in Texas. In 1901, after Susan refused to go with him, he went to Oklahoma on his own, leaving his family behind in Waxahachie. Susan found work as a domestic, her two sons became day laborers, and Bessie was left to be the caretaker of her two younger sisters.
Education for Coleman was limited to eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse that closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton. Already responsible for her sisters and the household chores while her mother worked, Coleman was a reluctant cotton picker but an intelligent and expert accountant. The only member of the family who could accurately add the total weight of the cotton they picked, she increased the total whenever she could by putting her foot on the scale when the foreman wasn't looking.
Coleman easily established her position as family leader, reading aloud to her siblings and mother at night, winning the prize for selling the most tickets for a church benefit, and assuring her ambitious church-going mother that she intended to "amount to something." After completing school she worked as a laundress and saved her wages until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University. She left after one year when her funds were exhausted.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915 when she moved to Chicago to live with her older brother, Walter, a Pullman porter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while she continued to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: aviation.
Cultivating the friendship of leaders in South Side Chicago's African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott, publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman appealed to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he said, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation.
Coleman took French language lessons while managing a chili parlor and, with backing from Abbott and a wealthy real estate dealer, Jessie Binga, she left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her F.A.I. (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license on June 15, 1921. She returned to the United States in September 1921 but soon realized that she needed to expand her repertoire and learn aerobatics if she were to make a living giving exhibition flights. She went back to Europe the following February and for the next six months gained further flying experience in Holland, France, and Germany.
Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined to reporters the objectives she intended to pursue for the remainder of her life. She would be a leader, she said, in introducing aviation to her race. She would found a school for aviators of any race, and she would appear before audiences in churches, schools, and theaters to arouse the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight.
Intelligent, beautiful, and eloquent, Coleman often exaggerated her remarkable-enough accomplishments in the interest of better publicity and bigger audiences. She even achieved occasional brief notice from the press of the time, which ordinarily confined its coverage of African Americans to actors, athletes and entertainers or those involved in sex, crime, or violence. But the African American press of the country, primarily weekly newspapers, quickly proclaimed her "Queen Bell."
In December 1922, after a number of successful air shows on the East Coast and in Chicago, Coleman walked out on the starring role of a New York movie in production, publicly denouncing the script as "Uncle Tom stuff" de-meaning to her race. The abrupt move alienated a number of influential African American critics and producers and threatened to end her career. But Coleman bounced back by going to California and air-dropping advertising leaflets for a tire company in exchange for money to buy a JN4, or "Jenny"—a surplus U.S. Army training plane from World War I.
On February 4, 1923, however, within only days of getting her plane, Coleman crashed shortly after takeoff from Santa Monica en route to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The Jenny was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months. Returning to Chicago to recuperate, it took her another 18 months to find backers for a series of shows in Texas. Her flights and theater appearances there during the summer of 1925 were highly successful, earning her enough to make a down payment on another surplus Jenny she found at Love Field, Dallas.
To raise the rest of the money, in January 1926 she returned to the East Coast, where she had signed up for a number of speaking engagements and exhibition flights in borrowed planes in Georgia and Florida. In Florida she met the Rev. Hezekiah Keith Hill and his wife, Viola Tillinghast, community activists from Orlando who invited her to stay with them. She also met Edwin M. Beeman, heir to the Beeman Chewing Gum fortune, whose interest in flying led him to give her the payment due on her airplane in Dallas. At last, she wrote to one of her sisters, she was going to be able to earn enough money to open her school for fliers.
Coleman left Orlando by train to give a benefit exhibition for the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League, scheduled for May 1, 1926. William D. Wills, the young white mechanic-pilot who flew her plane to her from Love Field, made three forced landings en route. Two local pilots who witnessed his touchdown at Jacksonville's Paxon Field said later that the Jenny was so worn and so poorly maintained they couldn't understand how it made it all the way from Dallas. On April 30 Wills piloted the plane on a trial flight while Coleman sat in the other cockpit to survey the area over which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day. Her seat belt was unattached because she had to be able to lean out over the edge of the plane while picking the best sites for her program. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the plane dived, then flipped over, throwing Coleman out. Moments later Wills crashed. Both were killed.
Coleman had three memorial services—in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago, the last attended by thousands. She was buried at Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery and gradually, over the years following her death, achieved recognition at last as a hero of early aviation and of her race.
The best source of information on Bessie Coleman is Queen Bess—The Life of Bessie Coleman (1993), written by Doris Rich in large part to correct the many misstatements in contemporary sources. Two reliable places where information can be found are the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago and the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Fisher, Lillian M., Brave Bessie: flying free, Dallas, Tex.: Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., 1995.
Freydberg, Elizabeth Hadley, Bessie Coleman, the brownskin lady bird, New York: Garland Pub., 1994.
Rich, Doris L., Queen Bess: daredevil aviator, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. □