Black History Month - Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman - A Tribute to Women of Color and Substance

Born January 26, 1892, Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, the tenth of thirteen children. A child of hard working share croppers, George and Susan Coleman. Coleman attend a one room school house until eight grade and excelled in math. Each school year Bessie and her siblings were pulled out of school to tend to the cotton harvest, which was a family affair that kept a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Unable to withstand the prejudices against him, being of African and Cherokee decent, George Coleman left the family in 1901, returning to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) seeking a better life, leaving his wife and children behind.

At age eighteen Coleman gathered her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (better known now as Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Bessie had to return home after completing the first term, because her funds ran out returning to a hometown that she already knew held no future. Coleman soon left for Chicago living with two of her brothers while she seeking employment.

Chicago, Illinois 1915 while working as a manicurist Bessie listened to tales about different parts of the world told by returning pilots and soldiers from World War I. These stories stirred a fire in the young woman's soul to become a pilot and see the world. When she spoke of her dreams to her brother he would make fun of her telling her that the women in France were better than American Negro women because many of them were pilots. This statement stirred those burning embers even more.



“I refused to take no for an answer.” Bessie Coleman

Gaining entry into an American flight school was out of the question due to Coleman's skin color and sex. Black American aviators weren't interested in training her either. The publisher of the Chicago Defender suggested Bessie study abroad, she received financing from banker Jessie Binga and the Defender Newspaper company. This backing by the news firm was not only a good will gester, but seen as an excellent promotional idea. Taking full advantage of Bessie's beauty her out going personality and the huge risk of the undertaking.

Preparing for her trip, Coleman took a French language class at a school in Chicago then was off for Paris in November of 1920. The first plane Elizabeth learned to fly was a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, which had a steering system the shape of a vertical baseball bat, and located under the pilot's feet . . the rudder bar.

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, presented Elizabeth 'Bessie" Coleman, with her license on June 25, 1921. The first African American woman to earn an international aviation license and a pilots license. Determined to be the best Bessie spent her last two months in France training with a French ace pilot, in September she set sail for home.

“The air is the only place free from prejudices.” Bessie Coleman

In her chosen profession as an aviator Coleman determined that in order to make a living she would need to find work with an airshow. Barnstorming was all the rage, stunt flying, highly competitive. and more training was needed for this type of flying.

Again, Bessie was pushed up against the same old wall; no one wanted to train a black woman in the states, so off to Europe she went in February of 1922. Training in France finishing an advanced flight class, the Netherlands and then finally in Germany, under the tutelage of the Fokker Corporation's chief pilot. Returning to the states in 1921.

Upon her return Bessie earned the nickname "Queen Bess" and was top draw in barnstorming events over a five years straight. A darling of the media and admired by both blacks and whites. Her plane of choice was the Curtiss JN-4 or Jenny biplanes. In a stall and crash on February 22, 1922, Coleman suffered broken ribs and broken leg by September of the same year she made her first public appearance since the crash. It was an important event in Coleman's mind honoring the World War I veterans from the all black 369th Infantry Regiment on Curtiss field. Bess was advertised as "the world's greatest woman flier" she was among her peers with eight other American pilots and black parachutist Hubert Julian.

Queen Bess's Legacy

  • In 1927, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout the country. On Labor Day, 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators.
  • That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Coleman's grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. Coleman's name also began appearing on buildings in Harlem.
  • In 1989, First Flight Society inducted Coleman into their shrine that honors those individuals and groups that have achieved significant "firsts" in aviation's development
  • A second-floor conference room at the Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, DC, is named after Coleman. In 1990.
  • Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O'Hare International Airport "Bessie Coleman Drive." In 1992, he proclaimed May 2 "Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago."
  • Mae Jemison, physician and former NASA astronaut, wrote in the book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993)
  • n 1995, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame.
  • In 1999 she was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
  • In November 2000, Coleman was inducted in The Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
  • She is the subject of Barnstormer, a musical that debuted 20 October 2008 at the National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival in New York; the book and lyrics are by Cheryl Davis and the music is by Douglas Cohen.
  • In 2004, a small park in the Southside Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood was named "Bessie Coleman Park."
  • 2007, a street in Gateway Gardens, Frankfurt am Main, Germany was named after her.
  • The ninetieth anniversary of her first flight, July 23, 2011, was commemorated by a reading of parts of some of her biographies and an exhibition of model aircraft at Miller Field (Staten Island, New York), a former United States Air Force facility.

Live Life with a Purpose

Bessie was often criticized as opportunistic and flashy by the press, this fueled her drive even more to become the best and most daring pilot never shying away from a complicated stunt. Her love of flying never dampened her dream to "amount to something".

The African American Seminole Film Producing Company offered Coleman a role in a film Shadow and Sunshine. Bessie jumped at the chance hoping the exposure would give her career the boost and provide the money needed to start her own flying school. Alas the film opportunity was a bust. The first scene of the piece dictated that Bessie appear with a walking stick dressed in raggedy clothes. Coleman refused, walking off the set, never to return. Not only was Bessie daring, but a woman of character who had no intention of cementing the stereotypes of her people.

I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.
Bessie Coleman

Coleman never saw her dreams come to frutition. On April 20 1926, age thirty-four, in Jacksonville, Florida Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was killed. Bessie was a passenger in her recently purchase Curtiss JN-4. Not wearing a seat belt Bessie wanted to look over the cockpit and terrain preparing for a jump the following day. Ten minutes into the flight the pilot, William Willis Coleman's publicity agent and mechanic, put the plane into a nose dive that it would not come out of instead the plane went into a tailspin. Bessie was thrown from the plane, 500 feet in the air at 150 mph dying on impact. The pilot also perished as the plane hit the ground bursting into flames.



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Comments 16 comments

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, very much appreciated.


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

What an amazing story, and what a remarkable woman. I'd never heard of her until reading your very well-written hub. She accomplished so much in her short life, and at a time when few opportunities were open to either her gender or her race.

Thanks for writing this. Voted up, interesting, awesome and shared.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Jools99: no I was thinking the same thing as I wrote the piece "this is stuff that great movies are made of", but it is hard to find financing for movies about Blacks. It took Lucas 23 years and his own money to get Red Tails. Some things in life seem never to change.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Your so right in a time of such an oppression of people be it about sex or color you have to admire those who take a stand and weather the storm. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Peggy W: Yes these types of story are an inspiration not only for Blacks but for all women and people. It shows what America is suppose to be about. Even though Ms. Coleman had to leave the US to get it done she got it done. Thank you for taking your time to vote, read, comment and shared the gesture is much appreciated.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Dreaver Endus: Thank you so much for voting, and taking the time to stop by and read my piece. I too admire those who fight against the worst odds to accomplish their dreams.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you Nell Rose, your stopping by and taking the time to read and comment are much appreciated.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

I agree I try and seek the no so publicized stories for Black History Month. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.


pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Brilliant story. She certainly lived an exciting and adventurous life, so sad that she died at such a young age. Has nobody ever made a move about her?


Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 4 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

Wonderful hub! Thank you so much, she is one I have never heard of so thank you for writing this hub. This is a beautiful hubs. She had so much grace and dignity.

Thank you again for this hub. Thumbs up!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

What a wonderful story about Bessie Coleman and the pioneer spirit that she showed in a time when most blacks were held back from participating fully in the American dream. So nice to know that she has been honored in so many different ways. This hub also works towards that. Voted up, useful and interested. Thanks and SHARED with my followers.


Dreaver Endus profile image

Dreaver Endus 4 years ago from Coos Bay, Oregon

This is a story that Truly inspires. She focused on her dreams and achieved them. Her unwavering stance, never taking no for an answer, and finding her own way to achieve her dreams. A truly beautiful story. Voted up!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, Fascinating story about Bessie, as Askme said, we only ever hear about Amelia or amy johnson, what a great woman! not only fighting for her goal in life, but against prejudice too, rated up and shared!


Askme profile image

Askme 4 years ago

Wonderful hub. Enlightening. We only hear about Ameila not other women and surely not African American women being aviators.

Thank you for writing. I voted up, useful and interesting!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 4 years ago from North America

Hub rated Up! - I like to look at the exhibits of Bessie Coleman and other women aviators at the USAF Museum in Dayton/Fairborn.

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