Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman is one of the groundbreaking pioneers of flight in the early 20th century. She has the distinction of being both the first woman of African-American descent and first of Native American descent to obtain a pilot license. For Bessie Coleman, the skies were a place of freedom and equality, especially a place free from the racism she had known her entire life. She was a strong advocate for the rights of African-Americans, not only as aviators but within other aspects of her life, as well.
Elizabeth Coleman’s early years.
Elizabeth Coleman, called “Bessie”, was born to a sharecropping family in Atlanta, Texas and moved to Waxahachie, Texas when she was 2. Her father, George Coleman, was predominantly Cherokee or Choctaw but also part African-American (Hart, 2009). Her mother, Susan Coleman, was predominately African-American. Bessie attended a segregated school in Texas when she wasn’t harvesting cotton in the cotton fields.
In 1916, Bessie Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois. It was there, that she became interested in flying from listening to the stories told by World War I pilots. She became determined to become a pilot herself. Unable to find anyone in the United States who would train her, she studied in France instead. She earned her license in 1921.
Bessie’s life as a female African-American pilot wasn’t easy.
Bessie Coleman quickly discovered that in order to earn a living as a civilian pilot, she would need to become a stunt flier, and stunt flying required more skills than she possessed. Still unable to find anyone in the US to teach her, she returned to Europe in February of 1922 for advanced training (Plantz, 2014). In addition to studying in France, she traveled to the Netherlands, where she met Anthony Fokker, a famous aircraft designer and explored his factory. Later on to Germany, she trained with one of the Fokker Corporation’s pilots.
She returned to the United States in August of 1922, where she performed in numerous airshows, flying mostly military biplanes from WWI. She quickly became a renowned and widely popular aviator known as “Queen Bess.” She earned a reputation as a bold and skilled stunt pilot, performing difficult and dangerous stunts. In addition to piloting aircraft, she performed parachute jumps and spoke on tour.
Bessie performed a major exhibition on the 19th June, 1925. It was sixty years after the Civil War was declared ended in Galveston, Texas, to show that African-Americans can be aviators, too.
Bessie Coleman was determined to be more than just a talented pilot.
Bessie dreamed of owning her own plane and opening a school of flight for African-American aviators. She was vocal about the issues of racism and was determined to open doors for other African-Americans to become pilots. After working very hard, she finally earned enough money to buy her own plane, a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” Biplane, which she was finally able to purchase in 1926.
Her mechanic, William D. Wills, flew her new plane from Texas to Florida. Wills made multiple emergency landings bringing the plane home to Bessie because it had been poorly maintained prior to purchase. Despite that, after it arrived Bessie Coleman and William Wills went up in the plane with him flying. So that she could look over the edge of the plane to inspect the ground for a parachute jump the next day, Bessie left her seat belt off. (Platz, 2014).
Unfortunately, the plane went into an unexpected dive and spin. She was thrown from the plane and died instantly on impact. The plane crashed and William Wills was also killed. The investigation on the crash discovered that a wrench that had been used on the engine had jammed the controls.
While Bessie Coleman was never able to open her flight school, she was a true pioneer in aviation and paved the way for many future pilots.
She earned many honors after her death, including being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001, the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006, and the International Air and Space Hall of Fame in 2014. In addition, airports, roads, and other public infrastructure were named after her in the United States, Germany, an France.
Every year on the anniversary of her death, pilots put flowers on her grave in the Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.
She continues to be an inspiration to others.