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Black History: Bessie Coleman Soars To The Skies

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

For Black History Month, I honor the ambition and vision of Bessie Coleman, who was raised in the cotton fields of Waxahachie, Texas, and never accepted the second-class status that others ascribed to her. From the time she was a child, she was curious and strong and knew there was a better life for her.

She was born in 1892, in the shadow of slavery, to a Black mother and a Native American father, a double heritage faced with racism during this time. As a child, she walked 4 miles to attend a one room “separate but equal” school where she excelled, especially in math. She hated the degrading work of cotton picking, when the family had to head out to the fields for the back-breaking work. But Bessie was smart and never let her family be cheated out of the money they were owed for their day’s work. Even as a child she was brave and outspoken and would confront the white supervisor if she felt they were being shortchanged.

Throughout her adolescence, Bessie was restless, she wanted more than the ordinary life of a Black woman of her time. She wanted to “amount to something” and when she turned 18, she went to a "colored" college in Oklahoma, but had to return home after one term, when her money ran out. She decided to work hard doing laundry and other labor to help her mother and to save money to leave Texas. It was at this early age that Bessie’s interest in aviation began.

At age 23, she headed to Chicago to be with her brother, where she heard Blacks were free. But at the same time, Birth of a Nation (1915), DW Griffith’s anti-immigrant and anti-Black film, which glorified a white Protestant nation, was playing to packed audiences. So, life was still hard but Bessie was shrewd and learned a trade as a manicurist and worked to save money.

After 5 years in Chicago, at the age of 28, Bessie pursued her dream of learning how to fly. She faced many rejections from schools in the U.S. due to her race. She reached out to Robert Abbott, the prominent owner of the successful Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, and the originator of the great migration, a movement to encourage southern Black people to move to Chicago. He encouraged her to apply in France, where people of color were treated more equally, and after learning French, Bessie was accepted. After studying hard, and learning how to fly, Bessie earned her international pilots license.

Bessie Coleman flew over obstacles and prejudice to become the first Black American and Native American to earn a pilot’s license and an International Pilots License in 1921, even before Amelia Earhart.

Upon Bessie’s return home she was greeted by the entire cast of the Broadway musical hit Shuffle Along (starring Josephine Baker with an all Black cast).

Bessie worked for several years as a barnstorming pilot, traveling around the country doing amazing flying stunts and lectures in Black schools and churches. She attracted national publicity, and her career was an inspiration to people of color all over the country. “Brave Bessie” was in great demand and she set the rules -- she would only fly in exhibitions that were desegregated.

Bessie’s’ goal was to save money through her acrobatic stunts to set up a flying school for Black people. She believed by introducing more Black people to technology of the future, it would enable them to throw off the shackles of the past.

In 1924, Bessie crashed in one of her exhibitions, but as she is carried out, she tells reporters, “You tell the world I’m coming back.” After a brief hiatus, Bessie returned to the air, more determined to set up her school. While facing prejudice and roadblocks, Bessie pushed herself to greater and greater levels of skill and achievement in the air. Thousands showed up at her demonstrations, applauding her skill.

In 1926, Bessie was practicing a parachute jump from a plane for a show the next day, when a wrench jammed the gears in the plane and it flipped, throwing Bessie to the ground. The pilot could not right the plane, and it crashed, also killing him. For many years after, there were rumors about whether it was an accident. However, one truth that stands is that if Bessie had owned an updated plane,the wrench wouldn’t have had access to the gear box. But Bessie couldn't afford a better plane.

Over 10,000 people paid their respects at Bessie's funeral in Chicago.

Bessie never got to open her school, but her determination and courage lives on:

  • On Memorial Day, for many years until they were too old to fly, Bessie was remembered by Black aviators who flew over her grave at Lincoln Cemetery and showered it with flowers.

  • In 1990 at Chicago O’Hare Airport, a street was named Bessie Coleman Drive.

  • Bessie inspired the first Black woman in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, who carried Bessie’s picture with her on her mission aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in September 1992.

  • In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Bessie Coleman.

  • In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

And, in California in 2014, a street was named Bessie Coleman Drive at Oakland International Airport, with a beautiful dedication:

Congresswoman Barbara Lee pronounced, “Bessie Coleman was a trailblazer, an inspiration and the finest example of the remarkable contributions made by women of color in our nation’s history.”

"Bessie Coleman taught us to pursue one's dreams against all odds," said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. "This stretch of roadway named after her will be an important and constant reminder of never giving up on our aspirations."

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