Early 20th century America did not offer many career opportunities to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native Americans were even more limited. When she fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she dreamed of dreaming about a dream come true.
Bessie Coleman was born in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was waiting for cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often looks like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.
Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excels in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1
After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University-now Langston University-in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was educated as many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, they have been segregated, though racially segregated, which has been slightly more welcoming to people of Texas. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community.
Chicago what then she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.
Dreams of Flight and France
Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch them through the skies and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.
When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they were some of the truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S.
Coleman had learned to keep things that way.
Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers were not her only source of support in Chicago. Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John's idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in his face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world's most racially progressive nations, and they are now pursuing their pilot's license.
Coleman did not need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she works as a manicurist and accepts a better-paying role as the manager of a chili. At night she took French lessons in the Chicago loop. Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.
The First Black Aviatrix
Coleman was the only non- white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation at Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It's a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."
Despite the risks, she pressed on with seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautical International.
Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix."
In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was silent Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart-had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence cleared the path for the next generation of female pilots.
But her success in France did not mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hopes to do a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status as returning home. Just a few months after landing in the US, Bessie went back to Europe-this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barstorming stunts that were rapidly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s. 19659004] After her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American air show at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (
Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She just performed for the most important audiences in Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers have segregate black and white guests and have separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials finally agreed, but audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.
Just when it came down to it, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day. Coleman has not been wearing her seatbelt at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.
Bessie Coleman never achieves the same level of recognition as some of her peers, but she avoids this. Even if they have not heard her name, Chicago's living near Lincoln Cemetery has been flying on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor grave.