Bessie Coleman

bessiecoleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. Popularly known as “Queen Bess”, she was the first African American to become an airplane pilot, and the first American of any race or gender to hold an international pilot license.

In 1915, at the age of twenty-three, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and where she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she heard tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. They told stories about flying in the war, and Coleman started to fantasize about being a pilot. Her brother used to tease her by commenting that French women were better than African-American women because French women were pilots already. At the barbershop, Coleman met many influential men from the black community, including Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, and Jesse Binga, a real estate promoter. Coleman received financial backing from Binga and the Defender, which capitalized on her flamboyant personality and her beauty to promote the newspaper, and to promote her cause. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert Abbott encouraged her to study abroad.

Coleman took French language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.” On June 15, 1921 Coleman became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but the first African-American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September sailed for New York.

Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.

In September 1921, she became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. “Queen Bess,” as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. In Los Angeles, California, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1922. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flyer” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).

But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt.

Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly,” wrote Doris Rich, “[Bessie's] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”

Books:

Fly High! The Story Of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden (Author), Mary Kay Kroeger (Author), Teresa Flavin (Illustrator)

Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of “Brave Bessie” Coleman by Reeve Lindbergh (Author), Pamela Paparone (Illustrator)

Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Philip S. Hart (Author), Barbara O’Connor (Author)

Bessie Coleman by Philip S. Hart (Author), Martha Cosgrove (Author)

Bessie Coleman: First Black Woman Pilot by Connie Plantz

Talkin’ About Bessie by Nikki Grimes (Author), Earl B. Lewis (Illustrator), B. Moser (Illustrator), E.B. Lewis (Author)

Lifting As She Climbed: Bessie Coleman’s Contributions to the Elevation of Black Women by Edward DeV. Bunn Jr.

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