First Black Woman Aviator in Aviation History

A role model in General Aviation Flight Training

The other day while browsing through African American Aviation History websites and blogs, I came across a name that I had heard many a times, but never got an opportunity (or simply being lazy maybe) to learn more about. So, I decided to spend some time, and read more about Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (Jan 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926).

Bessie Coleman happens to be the first African American (Black) Woman pilot in the history of General Aviation. She also happens to be the first American (not the first African American, or Black female, but The First American of any race or gender) to hold an international pilot’s license. Now, who would have guessed that! Not me.

Early Life

Popularly known as “Queen Bess”, she was born in Atlanta, Texas and was the tenth of thirteen children to sharecropper parents, George and Susan Coleman.

Queen Bess began school at the age of six, used to walk 4 miles a day to an all-black, one-room school. Despite sometimes lacking even basic educational amenities, Bessie was an excellent student, especially at mathematics.

In 1901, Bessie Coleman’s life took a dramatic turn: George Coleman left his family. He had become tired with the racial discrimination that existed in Texas. He returned to Oklahoma (Indian Territory as it was then called), to find better opportunities.

When she turned eighteen, Bessie Coleman took all of her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She just finished one term and ran out of money and was forced to return home.

Career Moves

Manicurist job in Chicago

In 1915, at twenty-three, Bessie Coleman relocated to Chicago, Illinois, with her brothers, and worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. This is where she started hearing the tales of pilots or aviators from who were returning home from World War I. They told her stories about flying in the war, and Bessie Coleman started to fantasize about being an aviator herself. At the barbershop, Bessie Coleman met many influential Black men, like Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, and Jesse Binga, a real estate promoter. Bessie Coleman managed to receive financial backing from Binga and the Defender, which capitalized on her flamboyant personality and her beauty to promote the newspaper, and of course to promote her cause. She could not gain admission to American flight training schools because she was Black and a Woman. Even other Black U.S. aviators would not train her. Robert Abbott encouraged her to go study abroad, to France. French women were already flying at this time in history.

Flight Training in France

Bessie Coleman learned French language at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then sailed to Paris on November 20, 1920. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, and on June 15, 1921 Coleman became not only the first African American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but also the first African-American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the First American to earn an international pilot’s license. Determined to polish her skills, she spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September sailed back home for New York.

Airshow Performances

Bessie Coleman soon realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—she would need to become a “barnstormer” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and build a reputation. Returning to Chicago, she could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed back for Europe again. This time she spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition airshow flying.

In September 1921, she became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. “Queen Bess,” as she was known, primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and other army surplus aircraft left over from the war. In Los Angeles, California, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane crashed on February 22, 1922. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Bessie Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flyer” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).

Fatal Plane Crash

On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman, at thirty-four, was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a plane in Dallas, Texas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with her in the co-pilot seat. About ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a planned nosedive; instead it accelerated into a tailspin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 500 feet and died instantly when she hit the ground (she was not wearing her seatbelt). William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it, causing the plane to spin out of control.

Legacy and honors

Her funeral in Jacksonville, Florida on May 2, 1926 was attended by 5,000 mourners. Many of them, including Ida B. Wells, were prominent members of Black society. Three days later, her remains arrived in Orlando, Florida, where thousands more attended a funeral at the city’s Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Her last journey on May 5 was to Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. An estimated 10,000 people filed past the coffin all night and all day. After funeral services, she was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.

Over the years, recognition of Bessie Coleman’s accomplishments has grown. Her impact on aviation history, and particularly African Americans in aviation, quickly became apparent following her death. In 1927, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout the country. On Labor Day, 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Bessie Coleman’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.

In 1989, First Flight Society inducted Bessie Coleman into their shrine that honors those individuals and groups that have achieved significant “firsts” in aviation’s development.

A second-floor conference room at the Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, DC, is named after her. In 1990, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O’Hare International Airport “Bessie Coleman Drive.” In 1992, he proclaimed May 2 as “Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago.”

Mae Jemison, physician and former NASA astronaut, wrote in the book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993): “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying.”

In 1995, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame.

In November 2000, Coleman was inducted in The Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.

She is the subject of Barnstormer, a musical that debuted 20 October 2008 at the National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival in New York; the book and lyrics are by Cheryl Davis and the music is by Douglas Cohen.

In 2004, a small park in the Southside Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood was named “Bessie Coleman Park.”

Additionally, the Bessie Coleman park council was formed in 2005 as one of many responses to a serious increase in crime, shootings, and disorderly loitering in and near the park, at 54th and Drexel.

Notes
^ “Some Notable Women In Aviation History”. Women in Aviation International.
http://www.wai. org/resources/ history.cfm. Retrieved on 2008-04-10.
^ a b “Pioneer Hall of Fame”. Women in Aviation International.
http://www.wai. org/resources/ pioneers. cfm#1995. Retrieved on 2008-04-10.
^ “Texas Roots”. BessieColeman. com. Atlanta Historical Museum. 2008.
http://www.bessieco leman.com/ Other%20Pages/ texas.html. Retrieved on 2008-01-22.
^ a b c d e f Rich, Doris (1993). Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. pp. 37, 47, 57, 109-111, 145. ISBN 1560982659.
^ Powell, William J. (1934). Black Wings. Los Angeles: Ivan Deach, Jr.. OCLC 3261929.
^ Broadnax, Samuel L. (2007). Blue Skies, Black Wings: African American Pioneers of Aviation. Westport, CT: Praeger. p. 17. ISBN 0275991954.
^ “First Flight Shrine: Bessie Coleman”. First Flight Society. 2009.
http://www.firstfli ght.org/shrine/ bessie_colman. cfm. Retrieved on 2008-01-22.
^ Texas Aviation Hall of Fame (14 July 2000). The Selection of Bessie Coleman for induction to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. Press release.
http://www.bessieco leman.com/ Other%20Pages/ release_1. html. Retrieved on 2008-01-22.
^ Adam Hetrick (17 July 2008). “New Music: NAMT Announces Selections for 2008 Festival of New Musicals”. Playbill.
http://www.playbill .com/news/ article/119576. html. Retrieved on 22 January 2008.
^ “Bessie Coleman Park and Council”. Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. 24 March 2007.
http://www.hydepark .org/parks/ BessieColemanPar k.htm. Retrieved on 2008-01-22.

4 thoughts on “First Black Woman Aviator in Aviation History”

  1. Thanks for this. There are a number of early women aviation pioneers. There is a company called Women Fly (www.womenfly.com)that has celebrated these women with various products — including Bessie Coleman. Everyone is familiar with Amelia Earhart, but there are so many others.

  2. Hi Pat. Thanks for the comment. I am planning to write a series on some important aviation personalities, who made it big, despite their unfavorable financial, social, and/or socio-economic start in life. I appreciate your feedback and encouragement. Hopefully you’ll do the same for my future posts as well.

  3. A very interesting synopsis of the life of Bessie Coleman. I am myself a Black woman with a commercial pilots license. I learned about Bessie Coleman through my study of Black Aviation History and involvement with the Smithsonian Institution project known as the Black Wings exhibit back in the 1970’s. There are two captivating photos of Bessie Coleman in that exhibit and in the Black Wings publication. I would have liked to have seen one of the more revealing portraits of Bessie and her personality connected with this article. Thank you for promoting the history of Black Aviation.

  4. A very interesting synopsis of the life of Bessie Coleman. I am myself a Black woman with a commercial pilots license.I participated in the overflight of the Chicago gravesite a number of times in the late 70’s I learned about Bessie Coleman through my study of Black Aviation History and involvement with the Smithsonian Institution project known as the Black Wings exhibit back in the 1970’s. There are two captivating photos of Bessie Coleman in that exhibit and in the associated Black Wings publication. I would have liked to have seen one of the more revealing portraits of Bessie and her personality connected with this article. Thank you for promoting the history of Black Aviation.