I took some time to watch “Amelia” today, the movie about the brave aviatrix Amelia Earhart. It inspired me to look up information on another aviatrix who is not as well-known but who was no less brave, Bessie Coleman. They both started flying around the same time, 1920-1921, but being black, Bessie did not receive the same level of recognition as Amelia. Her story is just as inspiring – here are some fast facts about Bessie:
- The world’s first African-American pilot to receive an international license
- One of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas
- Attended beauty school in Chicago and worked as a manicurist during the early years of World War I at a barber shop; this is where she started to hear stories about flying from pilots returning from the war
- Always dreamed of flying; traveled abroad to attend aviation school in LeCrotoy, France in 1920 because no American school would accept African-Americans
- After studying ten months in France, she was issued a license on June 15, 1921 by the Federation Aeronitique Internationale
- Returned to the United States in 1921 with the intention of opening a flying school for blacks interested in aeronautics; during her trips she often gave lectures at colleges and churches to encourage young black men and women to enter aviation
- Participated in many air shows and exhibitions from 1922-1925 to finance her flying career; her death-defying stunts earned her the nickname “Brave Bessie” and she became a barnstormer (pilots who roamed the country renting cow pastures where they put on shows flying low, zooming high above barns, and sometimes even flying through barns) for paying crowds
- On April 30, 1926, she died during a test flight before a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. About twelve minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a nosedive as planned; instead, it did a somersault and dropped Bessie Coleman to her death.
- Although her dream of establishing a flying school for black students never materialized, the Bessie Coleman Aero groups were organized after her death. On Labor Day, 1931, these flying clubs sponsored the first all black air show in America, which attracted 15,000 spectators. She also had a day named in her honor in Chicago and was featured on a commemorative stamp issued by U.S. Postal Service.
- Famous Quotes: “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” “No one had ever heard of a black woman pilot in 1919. I refused to take no for an answer.”
Primary Resource: Doris L. Rich, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).
For more information on Bessie, check out this website: http://www.bessiecoleman.com/default.html