Bessie Coleman: Flying High on Dreams and Determination

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892. She was the 12th of thirteen children. Her parents Susan and George Coleman were sharecroppers. She had a mixed heritage as her father was Native American (3/4 Choctaw Indian) and her mother was an African American. A few months after her birth the Coleman family moved to Waxahachie, Texas. In 1899 her George Coleman felt that his family would have more opportunities if they moved to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The south at the time was filled with racial violence, disenfranchisement and racial segregation. His wife disagreed not wanting to on the reservation and remained in Texas. Susan Coleman was left with five of their children; Bessie included. Mrs. Coleman supported her family buy picking cotton and doing laundry. Although the children assisted Mrs. Coleman in her work, she encouraged them to learn as much as they could. Bessie worked hard alongside her mother and did not attend school regularly.

She educated herself by borrowing books from a traveling library and enjoyed reading and story telling. She graduated from high school and was admitted to the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Due to financial restrictions she only managed to attend one semester of college. In 1915 she moved to Chicago in to live with two of her brothers. While in Chicago, she attended beauty school and landed a job as a manicurist at a neighborhood barbershop.

One of the things Bessie read about was about the air war (World War I) going on in Europe and she knew she wanted to be a part of it as a pilot. She sought admittance to flight schools in the United States but could not get admittance as she was faced with both gender and race discrimination. Motivated by the talk that Europeans were more liberal towards women, she decided to go to France and pursue her pilot license. She learned French at night school and took on a job as a restaurant manager and was able to save money. In November 1920 she set sail for France.

In Le Crotoy, France she enrolled at the world famous Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation and at the age of 29 in 1921 she earned her pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She remained in Paris for some additional training and returned to the United States in 1922.

Once back in the United States, she decided to establish a flight school for African Americans. The United States was still dealing with social issues and her endeavor was not very successful. Ms. Coleman decided to raise the money for her school by doing daredevil flying tricks. Once again she applied to Flight Schools in the US to study to be an aerial daredevil and to learn the art of barnstorming; once again she was denied entry. She returned to France once more and returned ready for a career as an aerial daredevil.

She performed her first aerial show at Glenn Curtiss Field in Garden Cit, New York in 1922. After her debut show, she became an instant celebrity. She traveled across the states doing demonstrations, flight lessons and giving lectures trying to raise support for her school. Her nickname became “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”. She became a role model for both African Americans and women because of her accomplishments, encouraging them to learn to fly and pursue their dreams. She used her status to fight segregation and to influence social change whenever she could.

In 1923 Bessie Coleman had her first major accident, her plane unexpectedly stalled and crashed. It took over a year for her to recover from the injuries she sustained: a broken leg, multiple lacerations on her face and some cracked ribs.

Unfortunately Queen Bessie did not accomplish her goal for an African American flight School; she was killed when she was hurled from her plane during practice flight in April 30, 1926 in Orlando, Florida. Her mechanic William Wills was at the controls of the plane that day. Bessie was in the back seat leaning out of the cabin, scouting the terrain for suitable spot to land her parachute. She didn’t have her seat belt on. The plane lost control and dropped into a steep dive and then flipped over ejecting Ms. Coleman. She was a young 34 years old. She was laid to rest at the Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.

Bessie Coleman is a hero as she rose up beyond racial and gender bias to pursue her dream. She still continues to be honored to date. The United State Postal Service honored her by issuing her with a Postal Stamp; being the first African American woman pilot to receive that honor.

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