Today is the birthday of Bessie Coleman, who was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her mother was African American and her father was part African American, part Cherokee. Bessie would grow up to be the first African American woman and also the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. She was also the first person of African American or Native American descent to hold an international pilot license. Before you read on, you probably need to know that, as was sadly often the case with people of her chosen profession, Bessie’s life did not end peacefully in old age.
Bessie was the tenth in a family of thirteen children. When she was two, the family moved to the cotton town of Waxahachie. She lived at a time and in a place where black and white people were segregated. The school she attended was for black children only. She was an excellent student, particularly in mathematics, despite having to walk four miles to get there. It wasn’t a great school. It was in a one room shack, often lacked paper and pencils and was closed during the cotton picking season. In 1901, her father left the family and moved to an Indian Reservation. During her education, Bessie also found work as a laundress and saved enough money to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but after only one term, her money ran out and she had to go home.
In 1915, she followed her elder brothers to Chicago. By 1918, she was working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Her brother John, who had been a soldier in France during World War I, used to tease her by saying that she could never be as good as the French women, because they could fly planes. He told her she would never be able to fly a plane. It was the proverbial ‘red rag to a bull’, Bessie decided that she absolutely would learn how to fly a plane. But she found no American flight schools would admit black women and she couldn’t find anyone else willing to train her either. On the advice of Robert Abbot, founder of the African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, she decided to go to France to learn to fly. She received some sponsorship, but also took a higher paid job as manager of a chili parlor to raise the funds to go. She also took French lessons.
Bessie went to France in 1920 where she attended the best flying school in the country and was awarded her FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license the following year. As I said, the first person of her ethnic background to do this anywhere in the world. When Bessie returned to the United States, she quickly realised that there were very few opportunities for a civilian pilot to make a living. There was no such thing as a commercial flight. You could deliver mail (boring), you could be a smuggler (no), or you could be a barnstormer. Barnstormers were people who had bought up planes cheaply from the army following the war, as they were now surplus to requirements. They flew from town to town and could make a good living offering ten-minute rides to locals. They also performed stunts. Bessie wanted to be a barnstormer and she would need to improve her skills. She returned to Europe where she received advanced training in France, Holland and Germany.
When she returned to the United States, she was a media sensation. Her first air show, near New York City, was sponsored by the Chicago Defender, it was an event honouring the all-black 359th Infantry regiment of World War I and she was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”. Bessie could perform barrel rolls, near-ground dips and loop the loops with the best of them. She also had big plans. She didn’t just want to fly, she wanted to give lectures that would inspire other African Americans to take up aviation. She wanted to open a flying school that would be open to all people of all races. Bessie was very keen to use her position in the public eye to promote racial equality. She was offered a role in a film which could have advanced her career, but declined when she found out that, in the opening scene, she would be appearing in tattered clothes, with a walking-stick and a pack on her back. It was just the sort of image of black people that she didn’t want to see perpetuated. When she performed in her home town of Waxahachie, she knew that it was common at public events, that black and white people would be segregated and had to arrive by separate entrances. She refused to perform unless everyone was allowed in together through the same gate.
Barnstorming is a dangerous occupation and there were many accidents. In 1920s America there were no flight regulations whatsoever. Bessie crashed her first plane less that three months after getting it, breaking her leg and three ribs. She spent three months in hospital and another eighteen months recuperating and, undeterred, trying to find a new sponsor and a new plane. During 1925, performing in borrowed planes and making lecture tours, she managed to raise enough money for a new plane. She was sure her dreams of a flying school were within reach.
On April 30th 1926, her mechanic, William D Wills, flew her new plane from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, where she was to take part in an air show for the benefit of Jacksonville Negro Welfare League. He had to stop three times on the way because of mechanical problems. The plane was clearly not safe and everyone begged her not to fly. But Bessie and William went ahead and made a test flight. Bessie was not wearing her seatbelt, as she needed to lean over the side to scout out possible sites for a planned parachute jump. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane went into an unexpected dive and started to spin out of control. Bessie was thrown out at 2,000 feet, fell to the ground and was killed instantly. Wills could not control the plane and it crashed and burst into flames, also killing him. Afterwards it was found that a loose spanner, that had been used to fix the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.
So Bessie never achieved her dream. But after her death, a Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in her honour, to promote aviation in the black community. In 1931, they sponsored the first all-black air show in US history, which was attended by upwards of 15,000 people. She has been commemorated on coins, with stamps and had a road named after her. You can even buy a Bessie Coleman doll. Bessie’s determination took her from an unpromising beginning to her dream job, but then also to an unfortunate and premature demise. So I suppose what we can learn from her is, don’t listen to people when they tell you that you can’t do something; but then, sometimes do…