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‘Brave Bessie’: The Barrier-Breaking Barnstormer

Although I’ve known of Bessie Coleman’s story for many years, it still amazes me. Why? Not only did Coleman achieve things that most of her male peers could only dream about, she accomplished them at a time when many barriers stood in the way of persons of color and women. It is a shame that Coleman’s story isn’t more well-known (sadly, nearly 100 years on we are still writing headlines about women becoming pilots), because it’s an example of what’s possible even in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Born on 26 January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman came from a background that was far from privileged. The 10th of 13 children, Coleman’s father was the child of a slave. Although illiterate, he made ends meet as a laborer and eventually saved enough money to buy a small piece of land in Waxahachie, Texas, where he built his family a three-bedroom home.

By the time Coleman was old enough to attend university she’d only been able to save enough money to attend for a year. When her money ran out, she was forced to return to the family home and find work as a laundress. Eventually, Coleman moved to Chicago with her brother. She found work as a manicurist and was active in prominent African-American social circles, where she was befriended by several influential and wealthy individuals, one of whom – Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender – sponsored Coleman to become a pilot.

Coleman first became interested in flying by listening to the stories of soldiers returning from service in Europe during World War I. Very few women were training as pilots in the United States in the years following the war, and every flight school that Coleman applied to turned her away because she was black.

[Video: National Aviation Hall of Fame]

With no white pilots or flying schools in the United States willing to give her the training she needed, it was Abbott who suggested Coleman travel to France. At the time, the French were leaders in the field of aviation and Coleman was advised that her race would be less of an issue in France. Abbot even paid for her crossing.

[Photo: NASM]

On 15 June 1921, Coleman became the first African-American woman to gain a pilot’s license. She traveled throughout Europe, gaining flying experience with hopes of becoming a display pilot back in the United States.

When she returned to America, Coleman was met by a throng of reporters. Everyone wanted to know about the “Black Aviatrix,” and Coleman immediately began touring the country as a barnstormer at airshows, wowing the crowds with her loop the loops and figures of eight. Almost overnight, she became a media sensation.

[Photo: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum]

But Coleman had a dream that went beyond personal celebrity. She wanted to open a flying school that would be accessible to all, regardless of background, color, or gender. Coleman knew she would need to perform many more displays before she had enough money to turn this ambition into a reality, and she set about working fanatically towards this goal, touring the country giving talks at universities, churches, and events in order to raise funds for her cause. Sadly, Coleman wouldn’t live to see her dream come to fruition.

On 30 April 1926 Bessie’s mechanic, William D. Willis, was flying a Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplane Coleman had recently purchased from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida where Coleman was scheduled to perform her usual routine. During the transit, Willis had to perform three emergency landings due to the airplane’s poor state of airworthiness. After learning of the aeroplane’s questionable ability to fly, Coleman’s family and friends urged her not to fly the machine as it was clearly not fit for purpose. Despite this, Coleman, with Willis at the controls, took off on a practice flight for the next day’s display. Coleman, sitting in the rear seat, wasn’t wearing a seat belt because she needed to peer over the side of the plane in order to visualize the landing ground onto which she intended to parachute the following day.

[Photo: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum]
Bessie Coleman with Curtiss JN-4 “Jennie” (circa 1924).

At around 2,000ft, for reasons unknown, the airplane suddenly entered a dive followed by a spin. Coleman was thrown clear and fell to her death. Willis, unable to regain control of the plane, crashed several feet from Coleman’s body and was killed when a spectator lit a match nearby, causing the plane to burst into flames.

Mount Carmel Item – April 30, 1926

Coleman was just 34 years old.

An investigation revealed that an adjustable spanner used whilst servicing the airplane was accidentally left inside the cockpit and moved to jam the controls.

Coleman’s funeral was attended by more than 5,000 mourners and her endeavors inspired countless more. Although Coleman didn’t live to see her flying school become a reality, it did indeed become one. World War I veteran William J. Powell founded the ‘Bessie Coleman Aero Club’ in the early 1930s, which sponsored the first all-black airshow drawing 15,000 spectators from across the country.

[Photo: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum]
Bessie Coleman Aero Club – William J. Powell (R)

It would be wonderful if the inspirational story of ‘Brave Bessie’ was better known.

To learn more about Bessie Coleman watch the video below.

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