Bessie Coleman (26.1.1893-30.4.1926)
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It was the era of race riots and "anything goes". So it isn't surprising that one woman had a dream.
She had the dream to make something of herself.
This very woman was Bessie Coleman, the first African American and also the first woman in America to ever fly a plane and earn an international pilot's license.
By achieving that she broke both racial and sexual barriers in her short aviation career.
But let's start at the beginning - an January 26, 1893 - when Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in those days a little town of 1.000 people.
Bessie was the 12th of thirteen children, of which only nine would live to adulthood.
Her mother was also an African American and her father was a Native American of the Cherokee Tribe.
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When Bessie reached the age of seven, her father decided to move to Waxahachie, Texas to make a better life for his family, hoping that there would be greater opportunities for work in this town, which depended on cotton. But his expectations were quickly dashed when he realized that also there existed the same prejudices against black people. So he wanted to move to Oklahoma, but this time his wife refused to join him, even though the five older children had left home, and said that he could go if he wanted to, but she would stay there.
So in the year 1901 Susan, Bessie's mother, was left with 4 girls under the age of nine. She found a job as a cooker and housekeeper for a white family, who sent food and hand-me- down clothes for her children. Bessie, the eldest, looked after her sisters while her mother was working.
Susan didn't only encourage her children to make something of themselves she also taught them the manners and speech patterns of her white employers. She also wanted her children to attain a good education and so she sent them to school whenever it was possible. It should be pointed out, that in this town cotton was king and so school closed for cotton picking. Although Bessie couldn't attend school regularly, she loved books and read everything that came her way. She used the traveling library that come through the town two or three times a year and so she managed to finish high school which wasn't a small achievement in those days.
Bessie, who always tried to better herself, wanted to go to college, but she knew that her mother couldn't afford that at all. So Bessie earned money herself and could attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately there was only enough money for one semester.
After that Bessie was no longer satisfied to stay in Waxahachie. She was determined to get ahead, ignoring all obstacles like racism, poverty, and ignorance.
So by 1925 she was on her way to a new life in Chicago, where two of her brothers lived. Just arrived in the new city, she enrolled in the Burnham School of Beauty Culture for a course in manicuring. Once trained she could also work in barbershops which she preferred because there you got better tips for doing men's nails.
She liked her new profession, so in 1916 she even won a contest for the best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago.
In the course of time Bessie's name could be linked with several men and so even her family had to find out years later that she had married Claude Glenn.
The strange thing about the marriage was that they never lived together nor did they ever tell anyone about their marriage.
World War I was a turning point in Bessie's life. Her brothers had served in France and come home talking about the lack of racial prejudice there. They also told about French women who had careers and or who even flew airplanes. In this moment Bessie became determined to show her brothers she could do anything French women could and made the firm decision to learn to fly.
In America the thought of a woman flying was bad enough, but for a black woman it wasn't possible at all to learn to fly.
None of the local pilots, who were white, were willing to give Bessie lessons. In those times (1919 and 1920) her race was an obvious reason and her sex another for being denied. So she visited Robert Sengstacke Abbott, editor and publisher of the black newspaper the Chicago Defender, hoping that he had any suggestions.
And he really had one - France. Why France? Because "In France more than in any other country, one find the privileges of individual freedom and political unity. There is a total absence of radical antagonism." like Dr. Wilberforce Williams, a columnist for the Chicago Defender explained in an article.
All these facts were well and good, but of course Bessie didn't have enough money to go to France immediately. So she got a better paying job as a chili parlor manager and she also started taking French lessons. With her savings from the manicurist's job and the new one, she could afford the trip to France.
So by November of 1920 Bessie was on her way to France. She was eventually accepted by the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy in Somme for a 10 months flight training course. Flying a French Nieuprot Type 82, Bessie finished the course 3 months early and got her Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) license an June 15, 1821 - the first U.S. woman any race.
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She went back home and wanted to take part in air shows which were the main means of income. But though Bessie had now her pilot's license, local aviators didn't want to instruct her in aerobatics.
So she went back to France, since she couldn't get aerobatics instructions in the U.S.. There she trained for the next six months and some film clips were made of some of her flights. That's the reason why she got known and so the reporters awaited her arrival in New York. She knew that the press played an important role and would control her acceptance by the American public which was necessary for her to reach her goal - a flight school for other blacks.
After her first air show, right after her return to the U.S. she became popular. Doris Rich, in her book on Bessie, said "as an aviator she was a threat to whites who cherished their racial superiority, and as a woman pilot, she threatened the ego of black males." Bessie - now called "Queen Bessie" - was a true champion of her race. She refused to take part in air shows that didn't allow blacks to attend.
On time Bessie had an accident. She had just taken off and was at 300 feet when the engine stalled and the airplane crashed. Her injuries included a broken leg, fractured ribs, multiple cuts around her eyes and chin and possible internal injuries. After three months she was released from the hospital. At that time Bessie decided that it was time for a good long rest. On June 19, 1925 she was back in the air thrilling the crowds with her dives, figure-eights, and loop-the-loops.
On the morning of April 30, 1926, Bessie and Wills, her 24-year-old white mechanic, arrived at Paxon Field where they arranged the next air show.
As Bessie planned a parachute jump she wanted to check out the field for a good landing site, so she asked Wills to fly. But Bessie left her seatbelt unfastened so she could peer over the edge of the cockpit and check the field.
Aviators who witnessed the flight said that the airplane went into a tailspin. It then flipped upside-down, tossing Bessie out of the cockpit. After somersaulting end over end she hit the ground crushing nearly every bone in her body and her dreams for a flight school for her people.
Wills in the meantime lost the control and the plane crashed.
Here you can see
Bessie Coleman's plane.
It's a Curtiss JN-4 - called Jenny.
Ironically, when police and Betsch, the Welfare League's publicity chairman, arrived he was shaking so bad from shock that he decided to light a cigarette.
The spark from the match ignited the gasoline fumes immediately and so the airplane and Wills' body burnt.
Bessie made her last journey to Chicago where she was finally laid to rest at Lincoln Cemetery.
Bessie's dream of a school for black aviators finally became a reality in 1932.
"WHATEVER HAPPENS, THERE SHALL BE NO REGRETS"
World's first African-American woman pilot honored with U.S. Stamp A brief ceremony hosted by the Des Moines, Iowa, International Airport honored Bessie Coleman, the first woman to earn an International Aviation License and the world's first licensed black aviator. The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.
During the ceremonies, Richard Watkins of the postal service in St. Louis, presented framed enlargements of the Bessie Coleman Stamp to William Flannery, Des Moines airport director, and to me as a representative of The Ninety-Nines Iowa Chapter. Members Jane Walter and Martha Matthews also attended.