Aug 23rd 2017

Bessie Coleman and the Open Sky

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In late 1919, a young American woman arrived in Paris, seeking opportunities she was not allowed to pursue at home. Her name was Bessie Coleman, and she wanted to learn how to fly.

Her gender was a barrier to achieving her dreams, but not an absolute one. In the years after World War I, women were making a place for themselves in many new fields, and aviation was one of them. But Coleman was black and a woman during a time where the Jim Crow laws were in effect in the southern states, and no American flying school would allow her to enroll because of her race and gender.

From Sharecropping to the Sky

Born in 1892 to a family of Texas sharecroppers of mixed African-American and Native American background, Coleman showed an early determination, as she put it, to “amount to something.” After eight years of one-room school and a semester at Langston University in Oklahoma, she joined her two brothers in Chicago in 1915 and found work as a hairdresser and manager of a chili parlor.

Her brothers both served in World War I, and after they returned, one of them remarked to Bessie that French women could do something she would never be able to do: fly. But “never” was not a word in Bessie’s vocabulary.

She enrolled in French classes, and enlisted supporters in Chicago’s small but growing African-American business community to raise the money she needed to go to France and take flying lessons.

The art of flying instruction, like aviation itself, was still in its infancy and, as PBS reports, her flight-school experiences included seeing the fatal crash of another student. Though the crash was, in her own words, a “terrible shock,” she kept at it, and in June 1921, she earned her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

“Aviatrix” and Barnstormer

Coleman came back to the United States in 1921 to find that she was now something of a celebrity. According to Heavy.com, the Air Service News hailed her, in the language of the time, as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.”

Bessie Coleman, ca.1921.
Nassau County Museum Collection,

But the only way for anyone to fly for a living in that era was as a barnstorming stunt pilot, and Coleman returned to Paris for further advanced training. A year later, in September of 1922, she made her first appearance at an airshow.

She had a gift for showmanship along with her flying skills, and for the next four years she was a popular figure in the air-show circuit, known as Queen Bess. But she did not forget where she had come from, and refused to perform at segregated air shows. Everyone who attended, she insisted, had to come in through the same gates.

Offered a part in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine,” she turned it down because she felt that the role, which had the character dressed in rags at one point, perpetuated stereotypes about African-Americans.

Sadly, like so many pilots of the barnstorming era, she died in an accident. On April 30, 1926, she went up to rehearse for an airshow. Her mechanic, William Wills, was at the controls, and Coleman left her seat belt unfastened because she would later be making a parachute jump.

Something went wrong. The plane went out of control, and Bessie Coleman was thrown from the cockpit and killed. She was 34 years old. Wills was also killed when the plane crashed; examination of the wreckage indicated that a loose wrench got jammed in the controls.

Some 15,000 people attended her funeral. More enduring tributes followed. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club, established in Los Angeles in 1929, fulfilled her dream of a flying school for African-Americans, and according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, it played a large part in training the first generation of black pilots.

For years, African-American pilots in Chicago made an annual fly-over of her grave, Many years later, in 1977, the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was founded by a group of African-American woman pilots, and in 1995, the Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor. Nearly a century later, her contributions to flight continue to be remembered.

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