Black Heroes: Women Aviators
Bessie Colman, Janet Bragg, and Willa Brown
Many people do not realize that while Amelia Earhart was breaking barriers as a female pilot and becoming the darling of the nation, Bessie Coleman had to go to France to even be accepted in flight school and that she toiled away doing stunt flights and parachuting from planes. Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, TX. She was a smart inquisitive child who enjoyed studying and made plans to attend Oklahoma Colored Agricultural College, now known as Langston University. She stayed in school for one semester before her money ran out and she moved in with her brother in Chicago.
It was while working as a manicurist, that Coleman was regaled with stories from aviators returning from WWI. She decided this was her passion and tried to find anyone who would train her. She was often turned away for being black or for being a woman. Neither blacks or whites in this country would train her. An editor, at the Chicago Defender, urged her to study abroad. With backing from a local banker and The Defender, Coleman took a French language course and set out for France. She studied at Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and became not only the first African-American to graduate from this school, but the first American of any gender.
She returned to the U.S. as a celebrity but could not make money as a pilot. She decided that the only way that she would do this was by stunt flying. However, again, no one in the U.S. would train her. She returned to France and in a few months, came back wow U.S. audiences with her flying prowess and she did so for the next five years. Her goal was to open an aviation school for young black pilots.
Coleman was a daredevil in the air and was often criticized by the press for being too flamboyant. However, she would not compromise on race. She was offered a part in a feature film where she was to appear in tattered rags with a pack on her back and she refused. Clearly ... [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", wrote Doris Rich.
Coleman died on April 30, 1926 when the new plane she was flying took a sudden nose dive and she was thrown from the aircraft. She died instantly when she hit the ground. The cause of the accident was a wrench that was left in the engine and it jammed the gear box. Coleman’s legacy inspired African American men and women to become pilots.
Janet Harmon Bragg faced adversity from the time she decided she wanted to fly. If it was not the color of her skin that was used as a barrier, it was her gender. Her aviation class was all male except for herself. She endeared herself to her classmates by helping buy their first plane and helping build their school, Aeronautical University of Chicago. She was the first African American woman to earn a private pilot’s license in the United States.
She became an instructor and trained other women pilots. She applied for the Women’s Airforce Pilots (WASP) but was denied because of the color of her skin. Even though she trained WASPs, she was not allowed to be one. She then applied to be a military nurse, for which she was certified, but the military denied her application because the colored quota had been met. She was very instrumental in starting National Airmen's Association of America. She also entered the famous Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in hopes of getting her commercial pilot’s license. She completed the coursework but was denied the license because she was a woman.
Bragg died in 1993.
Willa Brown was born in Kentucky in 1906. She was trained as a teacher and Social worker, but thought that she could be doing more. She discovered flying after moving to Chicago. Her mentor was Bessie Coleman. Brown would be the first African American woman to earn a Commercial Pilot’s License. She was later named the coordinator of the Chicago unit of the Civil Air Patrol which was an integrated unit. She was also instrumental in starting the and training over 200 members of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. Brown died in 1992.