Bessie Coleman had said as a child that she wanted to make something of herself. For an African-American at the turn of the century, there were few opportunities.
With the invention of airplanes, she found her calling as the first African-American woman to become a pilot. As a famous stunt pilot in the 1920s, she toured the country, and all eyes looked skyward to see her perform.
Coleman was born outside Atlanta, Texas, in January 1892 in a one-room cabin. She was the twelfth of thirteen children in a family of sharecroppers. Her father was part Cherokee and part African-American with her mother a former slave. When she was two, her family moved to Waxahachie. As a young girl, she walked four miles to the one-room school where she developed a talent for math.
She briefly attended college in Oklahoma before dropping out. In 1916, she moved to Chicago with a couple of her brothers and found work as a manicurist. As World War I progressed, she was mesmerized by the daring tales of World War I fighter pilots that were told by returning veterans. With stories of women becoming pilots, she began dreaming of her own career as a pilot. Coleman took a second job and started saving her money.
Harriet Quimby of Michigan became the first American woman pilot in 1911, and dozens more followed. But there were no opportunities for minority women to even enter flight schools. Friends suggested Coleman take lessons in France. She left for France in 1920, and by June 1921, she gained her pilots license, the first African-American or Native American woman ever to receive a license. The news was met with acclaim in the United States. She spent the next year working on further training.
There were few occupations for pilots at the time. Military aviation programs were still very small and would not admit women. The U. S. Postal Service had its air mail program in effect before World War I but would not hire women pilots. The major airlines would not be formed for several more years. Most air travel in the 1920s, in fact, was by Zeppelin airship rather than airplanes.
The best option, and the most visible, was the air show. Airplanes were not yet two decades old, and many were fascinated by the new invention and the sight of death-defying aerial acrobatics. At air shows, pilots would perform complicated maneuvers, stuntmen would walk on the wings, and some would even parachute out of planes.
Coleman toured the country with air shows, billed as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bessie.” The plane Coleman used most often was the JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. In 1923, she bough her first plane, but she was seriously injured in an air show when it crashed a few days later. She saved up to buy another plane the next year. In the meantime, she continued to tour across the country.
“In the air is the only place free from prejudice,” Coleman often said. In the air, pilots can only rely on their training, instincts, and determination, qualities that that do not know skin color or gender. She gave presentations at African-American churches and schools, urging others to get involved in aviation. She often talked about one day opening a flight school.
In 1926, Coleman was preparing for a performance in Florida. She was unable to get a plane for the next air show, where she planned a spectacular parachute jump from the plane, and had her publicist and mechanic, William Wills, deliver her plane from Dallas. Wills had to land several times for repairs before arriving. On April 30, she and Wills took off on a test flight. Unknown to either one, a wrench had been left inside the engine assembly. During the flight, the wrench came loose, damaging the internal controls. The plane suddenly went into an uncontrolled spin, plummeting to the ground. Coleman was thrown out of the plane, falling to her death. Wills died when the plane crashed moments later.
The 34-year-old aviation pioneer was buried in Chicago. The city and aviators alike came to honor her memory in the years afterward. Chicago named a library and a park for her. Several other cities named streets for her near their airports. The Aerospace Education Foundation in New York offers the Bess Coleman Scholarship for students interested in aviation careers. In 1995, the U. S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. The Cedar Hill Independent School District opened Bessie Coleman Middle School in 2006.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute came decades after her death. In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, carried a small picture of Coleman with her on her mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. A great moment in exploration became possible by one person opening the door for others to follow. All eyes had turned to the skies once again for Bessie Coleman.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.