Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was a pioneering aviator in the early 20th century. Born in Atlanta, TX, in 1892 to sharecroppers George and Susan Coleman, she was raised in Waxahachie. She attended segregated schools, which she had to walk four miles to get to. After helping plant, work, and harvest the cotton in the family fields. And watching her three sisters. And helping around the house. As a child.
And then her father, fed up with racist barriers to … well, any kind of success at all, decided to leave for what he hoped were better opportunities in Oklahoma Indian territory. He tried to convince his wife and daughters to go with him, but they chose not to. So then Bessie’s mom, Sarah, went to work as a housekeeper, and Bessie did everything she did before plus effectively taking over the farm while her mom was at work.
So there’s your daily reminder that life was seriously, massively, horrifyingly hard for black folks back then, y’all. And extra hard for black women.
But Bessie showed her determination early. Despite these barriers to her education, she completed all eight grades available at her one-room schoolhouse and was an outstanding student. After graduation, she went to work washing clothes, saving money for her education. She went to Langston University for a year, then ran out of money.
At 23, she moved to Chicago, living with her brother and working as a manicurist. The community was full of WWI veterans who shared wild tales of their adventures. Inspired by their daring – and needled by her brother’s assertion that French women were better because they could fly – young Bessie set out to be a pilot.
And by damn, she did so. She learned French at a Berlitz school, found herself funding, went to France, and started training, always the only black and the only woman in her classes. And she became the first black female pilot on the planet.
Once she was licensed, she returned to the US and made her living as an exhibition pilot. She marketed herself very smartly, carefully creating her daredevil public image with a military-like uniform, high-energy public-speaking, and the tagline, “The World’s Greatest Woman Flier.” Her goal was to establish a school for black aviators.
And while she was working on her own success, she also did a lot for black folks. She spoke to packed houses at black theaters. She stuck strongly to her principles, refusing to bow to the racism of the times. She took a role in a movie, which would have been a great boost to her career, but walked off the set when she found out she’d have to appear in rags with a pack and walking stick, feeling that she was being asked to portray an ugly stereotype. She refused to perform for segregated audiences and demanded that everyone who entered her shows could use the same gates – in the 1920s, y’all. Thirty years before Brown v. Board of Education, at a time when this kind of “uppity” behavior could easily get a black person lynched. That was hugely risky and made a big statement. She encouraged other black folks to take up flying. She became a symbol of hope and an inspiration to thousands.
She died tragically young, at just 34, as the result of an accident in an experimental plane. Her funeral was presided over by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and brought out 10,000 mourners. Lt. William J. Powell, author of Black Wings and founder of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club for black aviators, wrote of her legacy, “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”
Sources/For Further Reading:
- Doris Rich’s biography, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator
- Coleman’s Wikipedia page
- The official Bessie Coleman site
- PBS’ page on Coleman, as featured in their film, Fly Girls