It’s Labor Day in New York, and a crowd looks on in delight as Bessie Coleman flies her Curtiss airplane through the skies. The ambitious aviatrix has spent years building up to this moment, defying the expectations of the era to achieve her impossible dream. Now, she’s emerged a true heroine – with a story worthy of the movie screen.
Coleman was born in the community of Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892. Her father George was of both Native American and African-American descent, while her mother Susan had a predominantly African-American heritage. And even though it was not easy to be anything other than white in America at the time, the Colemans made the most of their situation.
When Bessie was just a young girl, her family moved some 200 miles west to the small town of Waxahachie, TX. And at six years old, she started at the local school. However, segregation was still prevalent in the region at the time, and Bessie was forced to trek four miles to a separate one-room building, where basics such as pencils and paper were often in short supply.
Nevertheless, Bessie excelled at her studies and soon developed an impressive ability for math. Meanwhile, George left Texas and moved to Oklahoma, leaving Susan to care for their 13 children alone. But even though Bessie helped her mother out wherever she could, she still managed to finish high school, going on to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, OK.
Sadly, Bessie’s savings only lasted one semester, whereupon she dropped out to move to Chicago with her older brother. There, she trained as a manicurist and found work at a local barber shop. But when pilots started arriving filled with tales of their daring exploits in World War I, Bessie began dreaming of greater things.
Now, Bessie’s heart was set on becoming a pilot – but she faced great obstacles along the way. At the time, it was impossible for either women or African-Americans to attend flight school in the United States. But when her brother jokingly informed her that French women were allowed to fly, an elaborate plan began to take shape.
With support from Robert Abbott, the African-American millionaire owner of the Chicago Defender newspaper, Bessie began plotting an escape to France. And after taking language lessons at a school in Chicago, she withdrew her life savings and set sail for Paris on November 20, 1920. There, she enrolled at École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron et Le Crotoy – the top flight school in the country at the time.
For ten months, Bessie learned how to fly, taking to the skies in a Nieuport 82 biplane that was prone to faltering in mid-air. It was a dangerous occupation, and at one point she watched as another student was killed in a fatal crash. Nevertheless, she kept her nerve, learning the skills needed to become a qualified pilot.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie was awarded an aviation license. Not only was she the first African-American woman to receive one, but she was also the first female of Native American descent to achieve the qualification. Moreover, she became the first American, regardless of gender or race, to earn the credentials directly from France’s Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Now a qualified aviatrix, Bessie devoted the next eight weeks to honing her skills alongside a top French pilot. And in September 1921 she arrived back in the United States, ready to launch a glittering career. But even though the media had begun to develop an interest in her exploits, Bessie soon realized that she would need to become a stunt flyer if she wanted to earn her living in the skies.
Undaunted, Bessie returned to France, where she spent two months training in advanced aviation. Afterwards, she moved on to Germany and the Netherlands, forging a relationship with the Fokker aircraft manufacture company and learning some impressive stunt maneuvers. And by the middle of August 1922 she had made her way back to New York.
By now, Bessie had developed a reputation, and journalists from the leading newspapers turned out to greet her when she arrived. And on September 3, 1922, she took part in her first air show – a Labor Day celebration at Curtiss Airfield in Long Island, NY, where she was advertised as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”
Bessie’s show was a success, and the airwoman won over the integrated crowd. After performing a series of loops and spirals, she held the plane steady while the African-American parachutist Hubert Fauntleroy Julian leapt from the wing. And within weeks, she was at Chicago’s Checkerboard Airdrome displaying more amazing feats.
But even though Bessie’s career was on the rise, she harbored another dream. Eventually, she hoped to open a flying school in her home country that would welcome African-Americans into its ranks. So when she was offered a role in the upcoming movie Shadow and Sunshine, she accepted – thinking of the much-needed funds that the opportunity would bring.
However, Bessie soon discovered that the role would see her cast stereotypically as a poor, black woman. Disgusted, she turned it down. “She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks,” Doris Rich wrote in her 1993 biography Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator.
By now, Bessie had become a star in her own right, attracting thousands keen to see her perform her death-defying stunts. And in February 1923 she managed to buy her own plane. However, her joy was fleeting, and an early flight ended in disaster when Bessie crashed dramatically to the ground
In the accident, Bessie broke three ribs and a leg, injuries that landed her in hospital for nearly three months. However, she bounced back stronger than ever before, and in May 1925 she took her flying show south to Texas, where the prejudiced Jim Crow laws were still in full swing. Meanwhile, Bessie gave talks around the region, hoping to inspire pride in the African American community.
Then, in 1926, Bessie managed to purchase another plane, thanks in part to a donation from a rich heir with a passion for aviation. The aircraft, a Curtiss JN-4, was located in Dallas, TX, and Bessie employed her 24-year-old agent William Wills to fly it 1,000 miles east to Jacksonville, Florida, in time for another show.
However, there were a number of problems en route. And while the plane did eventually make it to Jacksonville, Bessie’s friends and family urged her not to take it up in the air. Ignoring their advice, she and Wills took off with Wills at the controls, but just minutes later the plane ran into difficulties. Without her seatbelt on, Bessie was thrown from the plane and fell 2,000 feet to her death.
Today, Bessie and her trailblazing career remain an inspiration to others around the world. “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers,” Lieutenant William J. Powell wrote in his 1934 aviation book Black Wings. “We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”