I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.
Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.
At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.
She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.
With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.
Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.
Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.
Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.
What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.
In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.