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Legends of Aviation # 13: Bessie Coleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born in Atlanta, US on January 26, 1892. She was the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license and an early American civil aviator.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children. She worked in the cotton fields from when she was six years old while also studying in a small segregated school. Since the beginning, she was an excellent student especially in Maths and she loved reading. Her young life was just about school, church, and homework but every year was interrupted by the cotton season where she worked hard to help the family.

Her father abandoned the entire family when Bessie was only nine years old. And when she turned eighteen with all her savings, she enrolled herself at Langston Univerity but she could attend only one term as her savings sadly finished and she had to return back home.

Then she moved to Chicago with two of her brothers looking for a new opportunity and worked in a hairdresser salon where often she was hearing and meeting pilots coming from the first world war and their adventures. That helped to develop her early interest in flying. At the time African Americans, Native Americans, and women were not admitted to any American flight schools. However, Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender and founder, challenged her to try it abroad. So, with the Defender’s help, which emphasized her flamboyant personality and beauty to further her cause, she saved and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.

Before traveling she took French language lessons and as soon as she arrived in France she learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane. In June 1921 Bessie became the first black woman and Native American to obtain a pilot’s licence and international aviation licence from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She was so determined to improve her skills, that she spent the next two months taking lessons from a French pilot near Paris and, later in the year, she sailed to New York. But Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a perfect stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the then still early technology of airplanes for paying audiences. To succeed, she would need advanced lessons.

In Chicago, Coleman could not find anyone willing to teach her, so she returned to Europe where she spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation. Then she travelled to the Netherlands where she met Anthony Fokker, the aircraft designer. On to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. Finally, after those precious trips, she returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.

Bessie became a media sensation when she returned to the U.S, becoming a high-profile pilot in notoriously dangerous air shows. She was popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie and hoped to start a school for African-American fliers.

Coleman often would be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. She also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. Committed to promoting aviation and combating racism, Coleman spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans. She absolutely refused to participate in aviation events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans. 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. Bessie 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. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image many whites had of black people at that time.

Coleman would not live long enough to establish a school for young black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African-American men and women.

Bessie Coleman died in a plane crash in 1926. She bought a Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas and she flew the plane in preparation for an air show, but the plane was not well maintained. Her family and friends suggested her not to fly it but she refused.

Although Bessie’s life was short - just thirty-four years - her pioneering role was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African-American and Native American communities.


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