Bessie Coleman was born in a one-room shack in Texas in 1892. An intelligent young girl, she attended school faithfully and was active in her Baptist church – that is, when she was not needed in the cotton fields to help her large family survive (there were 13 Coleman children altogether). She worked as a laundress to save money to attend college in Oklahoma, but her money ran out after only one semester. Hoping for better things, she moved north to Chicago to stay with her older brother. Although she found life there difficult, with her work as a manicurist neither lucrative or fulfilling, she overheard and was entranced by the stories of pilots who had recently returned from the airfields of World War I. She made up her mind to be a pilot.
In 1918, except for the occasional wealthy socialite, female pilots were rare. African-American female pilots were non-existent. Coleman was stonewalled by sexism and racism from American pilots who scoffed at her desire to fly. Hearing of her woes, black newspaperman Robert Abbott, the publisher of The Chicago Defender, encouraged her to go to France to learn how to fly. He financed a trip to Paris in 1920, and for seven months, Coleman trained with some of the best pilots in Europe. Despite being the only black person in her class, she was treated with respect and earned her international pilot’s license by 1921. When she returned to America, newspapers caught wind of the unusual story and she became a minor celebrity almost overnight.
In the early 20s, commercial aviation was still in its infancy, so most active fliers were stunt fliers who performed at air shows. Coleman sought out the best in the field (again, in Europe) for training, and she took to the air show circuit, where she was a big hit. Nicknamed “Queen Bess,” Coleman was known for her daredevil aerial tricks, and her race and her gender became a selling point instead of a liability. For five years, she barnstormed around the country, making a good living. It was a hard living, however, filled with risks; in 1923, for instance, she ended up in the hospital with a broken leg when her plane crashed from mechanical failure.
A later, more serious mechanical failure would lead to Coleman’s premature demise in 1926. She purchased a replacement plane for the one she’d lost in 1923, and her co-pilot, a man named William D. Wills, flew the “crate” from Texas to Florida, the location of the next air show. The plane had mechanical problems during the journey and was in desperate need of an overhaul, but Wills and Coleman unwisely took it up on April 30th to survey the ground for the parachute jump that Coleman planned for the next day. The plane failed once again, but this time it could not be piloted safely to the ground; Wills was killed on impact, and Coleman, who had not been wearing a seatbelt so she could look at the landscape over the side of the plane, was pitched from her seat and died instantly.
Coleman had hoped to inspire other young African-Americans to take to the skies by establishing a flight school. Her dream to start a school would never be realized, but by being the first black American woman to fly, she inspired countless young men and women to do the same, including the person discussed next.
MCGASKO, JOE. Five African-Americans Forgotten in History. February 17, 2016. http://www.biography.com/news/african-american-firsts-history (accessed February 14, 2017).