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.
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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