The Legacy of Bessie Coleman
by Louise Oertly (Also se Bessie Coleman )
It was the era of barnstormers, flappers, race riots, and "anything
goes." So it is not surprising that one woman had a dream to make something
of herself and extend a hand to others of her race. Her name was Bessie
Coleman, the first African American to earn an international pilot's license.
It all started in the town of Atlanta, TX about 10 miles west of where
the Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas borders meet. Susan and George Coleman
had been married 17 years by the time Bessie was born on January 26, 1892.
It was the era of barnstormers, flappers, race riots, and "anything goes." So it is not surprising that one woman had a dream to make something of herself and extend a hand to others of her race. Her name was Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn an international pilot's license. It all started in the town of Atlanta, TX about 10 miles west of where the Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas borders meet. Susan and George Coleman had been married 17 years by the time Bessie was born on January 26, 1892.
They would eventually have 13 children of which only nine would live to adulthood. Bessie's father decided to move to Waxahachie, TX to make a better life for his family, thinking that there would be greater opportunities for work in this cotton town. His expectations were quickly dashed when he found the same color line existed there as well.
He announced that it was time for another moveÑthis time to the Oklahoma territory. Even though the five older children had left home, his wife Susan refused to go. She said he could go if he wanted to, but she and the girls would stay in Waxahachie. It was 1901. Susan was now left with four girls under the age of nine to raise. She would go to work as a cook/housekeeper for a prosperous white family, who would send food and hand-me-down clothes home for the girls.
Bessie, the eldest, would take over the mothering of her younger sisters and attend school when she could. Susan encouraged her children to make something of themselves. To this end she taught her children the manners and speech patterns of her white employers. She also knew the importance of education and encouraged her children to attend school whenever it was in session. In this town cotton was king, and school closed for cotton picking. Bessie and her mother and siblings went to pick cotton with the rest of the town.
Although Bessie didn't attend school regularly, she loved books and read everything that came her way. She wanted to go to college but knew her mother couldn't afford to send her. To earn money for the tuition she went to work as a laundress. By 1910 she had enough money to attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, OK. Unfortunately, there was only enough money for one year. With her eyes opened to another world, Bessie wasn't satisfied to stay in Waxahachie after her year at college. By 1915 she was on her way to a new life in Chicago where two of her brothers lived.
Chicago was a far cry from the small Texas town Bessie had been raised, but it seemed to be just what she was looking for. Even for an African American of that era, there were plenty of opportunities in the African American section Ñmost large cities had ghettos of various ethnic groups. In addition to her older brothers, Bessie found a" support network" among the area's black churches, clubs, and social structure.
Bessie enrolled in the Burnham School of Beauty Culture for a course in manicuring. Hairdressing training took longer. Once trained she could also work in barbershops where tips for doing men's nails were better. She enjoyed her new profession and in 1916 won a contest for the best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago. Another advantage of Bessie's job was meeting some of the more influential black men of her day.
Over the years Bessie's name would be linked with several men, but no one knows for certain exactly what these relationships entailed. However, one puzzled even her family when years later they found out that Bessie had married Claude Glenn, a friend of her brother Walter. He was 14 years her senior and described as a pleasant, quiet, older man, but not wealthy. The strange thing about the marriage was that they never lived together nor did they ever tell anyone about their marriage.
World War I was a turning point in Bessie's life. Her brothers had served in France and came home talking about the lack of racial prejudice there. Although her job brought in good money she couldn't see herself as a manicurist for the rest of her life, and her brother taunted her with tales of French women who had careers and who even flew airplanes. This provided tremendous motivation for Bessie, who became determined to show her brother she could do anything French women could.
In post-World War I America the thought of a woman flying was bad enough, but for a black woman to learn to fly was impossible. None of the local pilots, who were white, were willing to give Bessie lessons. Frustrated, she visited Robert Sengstacke Abbott, editor and publisher of the black newspaper the Chicago Defender, to see if he had any suggestions. He had only oneÑFrance. Why France? A 1921 article by Dr. Wilberforce Williams, a columnist for the Chicago Defender explained why: "In France more than any other country, one finds the privileges of individual freedom and political unity. There is a total absence of racial antagonism."
All these facts were well and good, but when you don't have the money to hop on the next ship and go, a bit more planning comes into it. In Bessie's case she arranged for her sister to take over her job as manicurist and got a better paying job as a chili parlor manager. She also started taking French lessons.
By November of 1920 Bessie was on her way to France. She was eventually accepted by the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy in Somme for a 10 month flight training course. Flying a French Nieuport Type 82, Bessie finished the course three months early and obtained her Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) license on June 15, 1921--the first U.S. woman of any race to do so directly. (Other U.S. women had received their licenses from affiliated FAI clubs.) She returned to Paris for additional training and by mid-September she was on her way home leaving Cherbourg, France, on the S.S. Manchuria. She arrived in New York and by October was back in Chicago with a stunning French wardrobe including dresses, a tailored flying suit, and a leather coat.
Publicity was the lifeline of the early aviators, and air shows were the main means of income. Unfortunately, the public wasn't interested in straight flying, and, even though Bessie now had her pilot's license, local aviators weren't willing to instruct her in aerobatics. She went back to France in February of 1922, since she couldn't get aerobatics instruction in the U.S.
For the next six months Bessie trained in France, met with Anthony Fokker in Holland, and aviated in Germany. Film clips were made of some of her flights, and she used them later in her lecture tours in the U.S. Suddenly, Bessie was news, the first African American to receive a pilot's license. Reporters were at the dock awaiting her arrival in New York. With a bio that cut years from her age (for the next four years she would claim to be 23) and which gave her a more interesting background, Bessie was ready for them. She knew that the press would control her acceptance by the American public and that was necessary if she was to accomplish her goal--a flight school for other blacks.
Immediately after her return to the U.S., Bessie scheduled her first air show. However, the August 27 event at Glenn Curtiss Field, Long Island, was rained out and rescheduled for September 3. Newspaper ads proclaimed that the wonderful little woman would do "heart thrilling stunts." The day dawned clear, and Bessie was finally introduced to the American public. The designation "little woman" shows part of the attitude that Bessie was up against. Doris Rich, in her book on Bessie, said "as an aviator she was a threat to whites who cherished their racial superiority, and as a woman pilot she threatened the ego of black males." Yet, Bessie was a true champion of her race. She refused to appear in any air show that did not allow blacks to attend. Her motto was "No Uncle Tom stuff for me." She was determined to bolster black pride and refused to promote the stereotypical, derogatory image most whites had of blacks.
After seven long years Bessie had achieved her goal. The poor girl from Texas had made something of herself; she was now a Southside celebrity--"Queen Bess, daredevil aviatrix," whose goal was to open a flight school for black aviators.
Bessie's next career step was going to Oakland, CA to offer her services to the Coast Tire and Rubber Company. She dropped advertising leaflets, but Bessie's greatest value was that she was news, and during any interviews she would promote the tire company. After her stint in Oakland and with money in hand she headed south to her next stop, the Rockwell Army Intermediate Depot in Coronado, where surplus military airplanes were stockpiled. For a mere $400, Bessie finally purchased her own airplane a Curtiss JN-4Ñ but her ownership was short-lived. As soon as her airplane was ready, a February 4 exhibition flight was arranged to celebrate the opening of Palomar Park in Los Angeles where an estimated 10,000 people would gather to see her. However, it was not to be. Twenty-five miles away in Santa Monica Bessie had just taken off and was at 300 feet when the engine stalled and the airplane crashed. Fortunately she was unconscious when she was pulled from the wreckage because her injuries included a broken leg, fractured ribs, multiple cuts around her eyes and chin, and possible internal injuries.
It would be three months before Bessie was released from the hospital. Still unable to fly because she faced a lengthy recuperation period, Bessie gave a series of lectures on aviation to make money. It would be September before she would be scheduled to appear in another air show but not in her own airplane. Hers was a total loss.
In June of 1923 Bessie returned to Chicago. Although two air shows were scheduled for September, neither took place. Bessie was getting a reputation for being unreliable and temperamental, and she went through a series of broken contracts and changed business managers. Air shows became reluctant to book her so finally Bessie decided it was time for "a good long rest." It would be May of 1925 before Bessie would finally succeed in lining up an air show/lecture series in Texas.
On June 19, 1925 Bessie was back in the air thrilling the crowds with her dives, figure-eights, and loop-the-loops. By September Bessie would add parachute jumping to her repertoire. She told the press that her ambition was "to make Uncle Tom's cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school." While in Dallas she visited the Curtiss Southwestern Airplane and Motor Company and selected another JN-4 with an OX-5 engine. The only problem was that they wanted cash on the line which Bessie didn't have so, she left a deposit and made subsequent payments when she could. After her successful Texas tour Bessie returned briefly to Chicago. In January of 1926 she was on the road again for a lecture tour of Georgia and Florida. Bessie's travels finally took her to Orlando where she seemed destined to settle. Bessie lived with Reverend and Mrs. Viola Hill, who would treat her as a daughter. Knowing that Bessie was paying for her airplane in installments, Mrs. Hill suggested that Bessie open a beauty shop to supplement her income.
Edwin Beeman, a rich, white man, who was fascinated by aviation and whose family owned the Beeman Chewing Gum company, gave her money for her final airplane payment. Bessie arranged for the plane to be flown from Texas to Jacksonville, FL where an exhibition was scheduled for May 1, 1936. Finally, things were beginning to look up for Bessie. The air exhibition was to be sponsored by the Negro Welfare League. They also arranged for a series of speaking engagements for Bessie at churches and theaters. Bessie also took it upon herself to visit the African American public schools so she could talk to the children about aviation as was her habit. The proceeds from this show plus money from the beauty shop would enable her finally to open her flight school.
In the meantime 24-year old white mechanic/pilot for Curtiss Southwestern Airplane and Motor Company, William D. Wills, had taken off from Love Field in Bessie's Jenny. It took Wills 21 hours to reach Jacksonville. Originally only three stops had been scheduled, but engine problems forced him to make two additional landings. Later local pilots were amazed that Wills had even made it to Jacksonville as the 90 horsepower engine was so worn and poorly maintained it could only develop about 60 horsepower at most.
On the morning of April 30, 1936, Wills and Bessie arrived at Paxon Field with John Betsch, the Welfare League's publicity chairman. As Bessie planned a parachute jump later in the day she wanted to check out the field for a good landing site, so she asked Wills to fly. Seated in the rear cockpit of the Jenny, Bessie left her seatbelt unfastened so she could peer over the edge of the cockpit and check the field. Wills climbed to 2,000 feet and circled for about five minutes. He then climbed to 3,500 feet and headed back to Paxon Field. Aviators who witnessed the flight said the airplane went into a tailspin at 1,000 feet. It then flipped upside-down at 500 feet, tossing Bessie out of the cockpit. After somersaulting end over end she hit the ground crushing nearly every bone in her body and her dreams for a flight school for her people. Wills in the meantime was struggling with the airplane's controls but failed.
The plane crashed after shearing off the top of a pine tree near the edge of the field. Ironically, when police and Betsch arrived, Betsch was shaking so bad from shock that he decided to light a cigarette. The spark from the match ignited the gasoline fumes immediately engulfing the airplane and Wills' body in flames. The cause of the accident was discovered immediately in the charred remains. A wrench had slid into the control gears and jammed them.
Bessie made one last journey to Chicago where she was met by a military escort from the African American Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard and finally laid to rest at Lincoln Cemetery. There will always be a question mark about what Bessie might have achieved as an aviator and an advocate for equal rights for African American women and men had she lived. But one thing we do know, Bessie Coleman was a woman ahead of her time. This article is based primarily upon the recently published, Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator, (Smithsonian Institution Press) by Doris L. Rich. Bessie is still an inspiration to many. She was honored in 1995 by the U.S. Postal Service with a Black Heritage commemorative stamp. Bessie may not have fulfilled her dream of a school for black aviators, but our minds finally opened enough that African Americans no long have to leave the country to learn to fly.
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