Bessie Coleman was the first African American female pilot. Starting off in a racist Texas Bessie worked as a laundress after she dropped out of college. At the age of twenty three she decide to move in in with her brother in Chicago to find a better life. After hearing stories of World War I pilots she had a sudden interest in flying. Due to discrimination Bessie could not go to an aviation school in America, so she moved to France to pursue her dreams. After this she came back to America and became a stunt show pilot.
Not only is she a role model for African Americans but also to women. Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to a poor family of sharecroppers. She was one of thirteen children of Susan and George Coleman. According to Roni Morales: “Bessie’s father, being three-fourths Indian, moved his family to Oklahoma Territory when Bessie was still a baby. Susan Coleman, an African American, wanted to move back to Texas. By the time Bessie was 2 years old the family was living in Waxahachie, a town of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. “(Morales 3) Her father left due to rights he had in the Oklahoma territory.
With her ather’s departure, her older brothers leaving her mother to care for four girls under the age of nine. Susan Coleman worked as a housekeeper and cook for the Mr. And Mrs. Elwin Jones. They were abice couple who allowed Susan live at home and work, along with giving the family extra food and clothes. Since her mother worked so hard Bessie became a mother figure to her sisters. She went to school, did chores, and attended church, but when cotton season came around her routined was pushed aside so she could provide for her family(Spivey 1). When she turned 12 Bessie started attending Missionary Baptist
Church. She completed all eight grades and went on to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Sadly Bessie only completed one term before running out of money and returning home. When she turned twenty three Bessie moved to Chicago with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. She started reading and listening to stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation. By 1918 she began to fly her mother and sisters joined her in Chicago. Bessie’s brothers returned safe while serving in France during World War I.
After living in Chicago for a few years Bessie was looking for a way to “amount to something”. became invested in learning to fly. She searched for aviation schools that would accept her. According to the Encyclopedia of world Biographies: “After befriending several leaders in South Side Chicago’s African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott (1868–1940), publisher of the nation’s largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators (pilots) in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman turned to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he insisted, were not racists and were the world’s leaders in aviation. “(Bessie Coleman 1)
Bessie took it upon herself to Bessie learn french so she could attend aviation school in France. After studying for ten months at Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme, she was issued a license on June 15, 1921, by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, giving her the distinction of being the first black person in the world to become a licensed pilot. She spent three extra months training n Europe before returning to America.
When she did return she was met with a surprising amount of press coverage. The Encyclopedia of world Biographies explains what she said to the press: “Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined the goals for the remainder of her life to reporters. 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 spark the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight. Bessie Coleman 2)
Bessie was beautiful, intelligent, and well spoken. She often exaggerated her already amazing accomplishments to draw in a greater crowd, and was eventually nicknamed “Queen Bess”. She bantered briefly with a movie career to pay for her own plane. In 1923 Bessie purchased a small plane for herself which she accidentally crashed during her first air show. She was injured and hospitalized for three months. After healing she returned to for eighteen months to find financial backers for her shows in Texas.
Expedition flights and lectures in black theaters n Georgia and Florida, Bessie was able to put an payment down for a new plane. After two months in Florida she opened up a beauty to quicken her financial growth. Her shows were held all over the country, many being in her native south. Bessie used borrowed planes to continue exhibition flying and occasional parachute jumping. She refused to perform unless the audiences were desegregated. Her newfound fame brought in steady work, meaning she could open her own flight school and purchase her own plane.
After putting down her final payment on her plane in Dallas her mechanic William Wills flew it to Jacksonville, but had to make an emergency landing due to the planes poor condition. Later while the two were surveying the land the plane had mechanical issues ten minutes into the flight. Bessie, who was not wearing a seatbelt was flown from her plane and plummeted to her death at an altitude of one thousand feet. She was only thirty four years old. Her mechanic crashed a few minutes later killing him also.
Bessie Coleman’s death was a tragedy to the whole nation. She had three service, one in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago. Her each one was attended by thousands of admirers. Bessie made one last journey to Chicago where she was met by a military escort from the African American Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard and finally laid to rest at Lincoln Cemetery. Linley Spivey says: “Only after her death did Bessie receive the recognition that she deserved.
Her dream of a flying school for African American’s became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California in 1929. As a result of being affiliated, educated or inspired directly or indirectly, by the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, lyers like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos(James Banning and Thomas Allen), the Tuskegee Airmen, Cornelius Coffey, John Robison, Willa Brown and Harold Hurd continued to make Bessie Coleman’s dream a reality. (Spivey 1) also lead to the formation Bessie Coleman Aviation Club , which formed in 1977 (fifty years after her death. Books have been written about Bessie, including children’s books that encourage kids to follow their dreams. In 1990 a street in Chicago was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive and Bessie Coleman day was declared on May 2, 1992 in Chicago. The United States Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in her honor in 1995.
In 1995, a group of women got together and decided to make a foundation to keep African American women pilots together. They call themselves “The Bessie Coleman Bessie`s legacy Foundation”. “Every April, on the anniversary of Coleman’s death, the Bessie Coleman Aviators, together with pilots from the Chicago American Pilots Association and the Negro Airmen International, fly low over Lincoln Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island to drop flowers on her grave. “(Smith 8)