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Bessie Coleman, World's Greatest Aviator - February 2012


I heard you say in a recent speech in El Paso that your son was an aspiring aviator. Do you know the history of Bessie Coleman, the world's greatest aviator?

--Shayna Simmons - El Paso, Texas


Bessie Coleman

Bessie was the tenth of thirteen children born in 1892 to Susan and George Coleman. There is confusion about her birthdate because when Bessie became well-known, she claimed to be about four years younger, saying she was born in 1896.

Bessie's father was one-quarter African-American and three-quarters Choctaw and Cherokee Indian. Her mother was African-American. When she was two years old, her family settled in Waxahachie, Texas, and ran a cotton-picking business. In 1901, frustrated by the racial intolerance and barriers, her father went back to Indian Territory (Oklahoma); his wife and children opted not to go with him. Bessie's older brothers struck out on their own, leaving Susan with four daughters under the age of nine. She found work as a cook and housekeeper while Bessie took care of her sisters and the house.

While the rest of her siblings worked in the cotton fields, her mother recognized that Bessie was gifted in math. At the age of eight, Bessie worked as the family bookkeeper. As Baptists, Bessie and her siblings learned to read and write by reciting from the Bible each evening. She went to the one-room school in Waxahachie (a four-mile walk every day), completing all eight grades. She borrowed books from the library and read them to the family at night -- often they were of African-American heroes: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington. After high school and yearning for more, Bessie took her hard-earned savings and enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (a teachers college) in Langston, Oklahoma. It was here she read about the Wright Brothers and Harriet Quimby, a woman pilot. But unfortunately, Bessie only had enough money to complete one term at the university.

Bessie returned to Waxahachie after her year of college, working as a laundress. In 1915, at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, where her brother Walter lived. He was a Pullman porter. In 1917, she married Claude Glenn, but apparently never informed her family, lived with him, or even used his name. She became a manicurist and worked in the White Sox barbershop, even winning a contest through the black weekly newspaper, the Chicago Defender, as the best and fastest manicurist in the area.

In 1920, her other brother John came to the barbershop, a World War I veteran, and began talking about how French women were better. They could even fly airplanes, he said. According to her family, that was exactly what she needed to hear. She's dreamed of "amounting to something" and her brother's taunting inspired her to become a pilot. But pursuing this dream was not easy -- it was hard enough for a white woman to get flying lessons; for black women it was impossible. She sought help and was encouraged by her friend Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, to attend an aviation school in France, where racism was nonexistent. But she had to learn French first. She did, at a local language school.

After securing funds from Jesse Binga, founder of the Binga State Bank, and other sources, Bessie left for France in November, 1920. In seven months, she completed the ten-month course at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme. She learned to fly in a French Nieuport Type 82, including "tail spins, banking and looping the loop." On June 15, 1921, Bessie received her pilot's license from the renowned Federation Aeronautic Internationale. Her birthdate was listed as 1896 (the year she had given passport authorities in Chicago) rather than 1892 -- making her appear 25 years old instead of the 29 years she actually was. Bessie was not the first black woman (or even the only woman in her class) to receive a license from the FAI -- but she was the first American to obtain her pilot's license from the French school. And she was the first licensed black pilot in the U.S.

After studying for an additional three months in France, Bessie returned to the U.S. in September and was greeted by a surprising amount of press. She planned to become an entertainment aviator but found she needed more training. She returned to France for about six months and visited airplane manufacturers in Germany and Holland. Upon returning to the U.S. in August, 1922, Bessie knew she needed publicity for her performances, so she created an exciting image with a military-style uniform that augmented her beauty.

On September 3, 1922, Bessie gave her first performance at an air show at Curtiss Field, near New York City. The show was sponsored by Robert Abbott and the Chicago Defender. Bessie was proclaimed "the world's greatest woman flyer." She was a success -- praised in both white and black newspapers. In interviews, she had poise, self-assurance and an eloquence that belied her childhood. And she performed in successful shows in Memphis and Chicago.

Bessie briefly began a movie career, and moved to southern California, but broke her contract with the black movie company when she learned she was to play an ignorant black country girl who goes to the big city. She felt the role was demeaning to women. A year later, she gave flying lessons to an advertising executive who offered to buy her an airplane in exchange for airdropping ad leaflets. She got a war surplus JN-4 ("Jenny") army trainer plane, but it stalled on the first flight and crashed. Bessie spent four months recuperating from a broken leg and other injuries. She gave a series of lectures at the Los Angeles YMCA, inspiring others to pursue their dreams and revealing her determination to open a black aviation school.

Her career was stalled at this point, and Bessie returned to Chicago with no job or plane. She did perform in Columbus, Ohio, but it was a year before she found backing for a series of performances in Texas, in the summer of 1925. Successful again, she followed this up with shows in Houston, Dallas, Wharton, Richmond, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Waxahachie -- insisting at the last one that there be a non-segregated main gate. She also began lecturing in black theaters, churches and schools, not only in Texas, but also Georgia.

She became famous; her fans called her Queen Bess or Brave Bessie. But she still endured countless obstacles -- from both whites and blacks. Many black men resented her doing what they could not. And many black women, despite activism for civil liberties and better schools, were often too socially conservative to accept Bessie's vibrant persona. Black newspapers gave her publicity, but they were smaller in circulation. White newspapers often either ignored her altogether, or belittled her.

Early in 1926, Bessie gave exhibitions in Florida. A Baptist minister and his wife invited her to spend two months with them in Orlando. Here, she opened a beauty shop to raise more money for her aviation school. She wrote to a sister that she was nearing enough capital to open the school. She also had began making payments on another plane. With the help of a wealthy Orlando businessman, Bessie made the final payment on the plane, another "Jenny." She arranged to have it flown to her next performance, in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 1, 1926. The mechanic-pilot had to make three forced landings enroute.

On the evening of April 30, 1926, Bessie and her mechanic-pilot took the airplane for a test run. It malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Too short to see over the cockpit's edge, Bessie was not wearing a seatbelt so she could lean over to check out the field. The plane suddenly accelerated and flipped over. She plummeted 1,500 feet. Upon impact, every bone in her body was crushed and she died. The plane crashed nearby, killing the pilot.

Thousands of people mourned Bessie's death -- from Jacksonville and Orlando to Chicago, where her body was transported by train. Three funerals were held; one in each of those cities. An estimated 10,000 people paid their last respects at the memorial service at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. She was buried at Lincoln Cemetery. It wasn't until after her death that Bessie received the recognition she deserved.

In 1929, Lt. William J. Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, the aviation school she'd longed to establish, in Los Angeles. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots' Association of Chicago did their first annual flyover above Lincoln Cemetery, in honor of her. In 1934, Powell dedicated his book Black Wings to her memory. And in 1977, women pilots in the Chicago region founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.

In 1990, a road near Chicago's O'Hare Airport was re-named Bessie Coleman Drive, and two years later, Chicago declared May 2, 1992, Bessie Coleman Day. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Department issued the Bessie Coleman stamp. And finally, in 2000, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.

January 2012 response courtesy of Women in History, Lakewood, Ohio