TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Bessie Coleman, of East, Texas, first African American female pilot
Bessie Coleman had said as a child that she wanted to make something of herself. For an African-American at the turn of the century, there were few opportunities for that to happen. With the invention of airplanes, she found a magnificent new calling as the first African-American woman to become a pilot. As a famous stunt pilot in the 1920s, she toured the country, and all eyes looked skyward to see her perform.
Coleman was born outside Atlanta, in deep East Texas, in January 1892 in a one-room cabin. She was the twelfth of thirteen children in a family of sharecroppers. Her father was part black and part Cherokee and her mother was a former slave. At the age of two, the family moved to Waxahachie, where she would attend school. She would walk four miles to the one-room school where she developed a talent for math. Her father, however, left for Oklahoma when she was seven for work and never returned.
She later took her life savings and enrolled at what was then called Oklahoma Colored Normal and Agricultural School(present-day Langston University). She had to quit after her first semester. In 1916, she moved to Chicago with a couple of her brothers. She picked up a job as a manicurist. As World War I progressed, she was mesmerized by the daring tales of World War I fighter pilots that were told by returning veterans. She also began hearing about women getting their own pilots licenses in France and began dreaming of her own career as a pilot. Coleman took up a second job and started saving her money.
Harriet Quimby of Michigan became the first American woman pilot in 1911. Dozens more women had become pilots since that time. But there were no opportunities for minority women to even enter flight schools. She talked to some local businessmen who suggested she take flight lessons in France. After getting extra funds from local benefactors, she left for France in 1920. In June 1921, she gained her pilots license, the first African-American or Native American woman ever to receive a license. The news was met with considerable acclaim in the United States. She spent the next year working on further pilot training.
The airplanes at the time were primitive, often single-propeller biplanes with wood frames overlaid with cloth bodies. The open-air cockpits had room for only one or two people. The engines were underpowered and stalled often. The dangers were obvious, but the risk made it all the more tempting for those early pilots willing to defy gravity and sail among the clouds. The plane Coleman used most often was the JN-4 “Jenny” biplane.
There were few occupations for pilots at the time, especially for women. The Army Air Corps and Naval Air Corps were still very small and would not admit women. The U. S. Postal Service had its air mail program in effect before World War I, but it would not hire women pilots. Passenger air service was still in its infancy, and the major airlines would not be formed for several more years. Most air travel in the 1920s, in fact, was by Zeppelin airship rather than airplanes.
The best option, and the most visible, was the air show. Airplanes were not yet two decades old, and millions were fascinated by the new invention and the sight of death-defying aerial acrobatics that air shows offered. At air shows, pilots would perform complicated maneuvers, stuntmen would walk on the wings, and some would even parachute out of planes.
Coleman toured the country with air shows, billed as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bessie.” She appeared in a silent short film in 1922. In 1923, she bough her first plane, but she was seriously injured in an air show when it crashed a few days later. She saved up to buy another plane the next year. In the meantime, she continued to tour across the country.
“In the air is the only place free from prejudice,” Coleman often said. In the air, pilots can only rely on their training, instincts, and determination, qualities that that do not know skin color or gender. She gave presentations at African-American churches and schools, urging other African-American men and women to get involved in aviation. She openly talked about one day opening a flight school for African-Americans.
By 1926, Coleman was still performing air shows and was preparing for a performance in Florida. Coleman was unable to get a plane for the next air show, where she planned a spectacular parachute jump from the plane, and had her publicist and mechanic, William Wills, fly in her plane from Dallas. Wills had to land several times for repairs, but managed to deliver the JN-4. On April 30, she and Wills took off on a test flight. Unknown to either one, a wrench had been left inside the engine assembly. During the flight, the wrench came loose, damaging the internal controls. The plane suddenly went into an uncontrolled spin, plummeting to the ground. Coleman was thrown out of the plane, falling to her death. Wills desperately fought the controls to no avail. He died when the plane crashed moments later.
The 34-year-old aviation pioneer was buried in Chicago. The city and aviators alike came to honor her memory in the years afterward. The city named a library, a park, and a street near O’Hare International Airport for her. Several other cities named streets for her near their airports in the coming decades. The Aerospace Education Foundation in New York offers the Bess Coleman Scholarship for students interested in aviation careers. In 1995, the U. S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. The Cedar Hill Independent School District opened Bessie Coleman Middle School in 2006.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute came decades after her death. In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, carried a small picture of Coleman with her on her mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. A great moment in exploration became possible by one person opening the door for others to follow. All eyes had turned to the skies once again for Bessie Coleman.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.