FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) – A young woman from rural east Texas, who grew up in a hardscrabble existence as one of 13 children born to poor sharecropper parents, became an unlikely choice to pave the way for future African-American accomplishments in aviation and the U.S. Air Force.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman would go on to be the first female pilot of African-American descent, but more importantly would later influence the accomplishments of others who would continue the evolution of African-American involvement in aviation throughout the 20th century.
Born on Jan. 26, 1892, she spent her childhood living the stereotype of poor African-American children in the racially-divided South: walking four miles to a one room school and lacking even the basic materials most students take for granted today. Despite those hardships, she excelled in math and completed all eight grades.
Coleman left Texas when she turned 18 and headed slightly north to Oklahoma, where she enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston. After a semester, she decided to head to Chicago, where she moved in with a brother and worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist.
It was in Chicago that she became enamored with flying, listening for hours on end about the tales and exploits of pilots returning from their adventures during World War I. It was then that her fantasies of becoming a pilot began to take shape, along with teasing comments from her brother that women in France were better off than their African-American women counterparts, because they were allowed to fly.
After countless rejections from flight schools throughout the U.S., because she was both a woman and African-American, Coleman decided to take her dream abroad.
With support from Chicago Defender publisher Robert Abbott and a local banker, Coleman took a crash course in French from the Berlitz language school and headed to Paris in late 1920. She learned to fly the Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with, in her words, “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.”
On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African-American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license, graduating from the famed Federation Aeronautique Internationale. After a couple of months of additional training from a French ace pilot near Paris, Coleman was ready to head home.
After returning to the U.S., Coleman realized that just learning to fly and receiving a pilot’s license was not nearly enough to compete as a stunt flier in front of a paying audience. She returned to Europe where she spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation.
She then traveled to the Netherlands and Germany where she met Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s top aircraft designers. She received additional training from one of the Fokker Corporation’s top pilots and returned home in September of 1921 to launch her career in exhibition flying.
Coleman’s return to the U.S. caused a media sensation and catapulted her to stardom as one of the country’s top stunt pilots. Over the next five years, “Queen Bess,” as she was known, flew the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes to stunt shows across the country.
In February of 1922, Coleman appeared in her first American airshow, an event honoring veterans of the all black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. The show, held at Curtiss Field on Long Island, N.Y., billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier,” and featured aerial displays by some of America’s top ace pilots of the first world war.
Soon after her New York performance, she returned to Chicago where she dazzled huge crowds with daredevil maneuvers that included figure eights, loops and near-ground dips at the Checkerboard Airdrome, now Midway Airport.
Even though she achieved her initial childhood dream of “amounting to something,” her greatest dream was to establish a school for young black aviators in America. Unfortunately, she would never realize that dream.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Fla., preparing to fly in an airshow there using a newly purchased Curtiss biplane, despite safety concerns from family and friends. With her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, flying the plane, Coleman was in the other seat scouting the terrain for a parachute jump the next day – with her seatbelt unfastened.
About 10 minutes into the flight, the plane began to spin rather than pull out of an intended dive. Coleman was thrown from the plane from a height of about 500 feet and died instantly upon impact. Unable to gain control, Wills also plummeted to the ground and died on impact. It was later discovered in the wreckage that a wrench had slid into the gearbox, causing it to jam.
Coleman’s funeral in Jacksonville on May 2, 1926, was attended by more than 5,000 mourners, many who were prominent members of black society. Three days later her body arrived in Orlando, Fla., where thousands more attended a funeral at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Her final journey took her back to Chicago, where more than 10,000 people filed past her coffin to pay final respects before her burial in the Lincoln Cemetery.
In the years following her death, Bessie Coleman aero clubs would spring up throughout the country and, on Labor Day in 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African-American Air Show, attracting more than 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African-American pilots established a fly-over of her gravesite, and her name began appearing on buildings in the Harlem area of New York City.
William J. Powell, a lieutenant serving in an all-black unit during World War I, penned in his 1934 book, “Black Wings,” “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than a racial barrier. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”