Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Fearless Fly Girl
A daredevil of her generation, Bessie Coleman soared above barriers of her time to dazzle audiences and become a fearless aviator of the skies. One of 13 children, Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. When she was only two years old, her family moved to the farm town of Waxahacie, Texas where she grew up picking cotton and helping her mother do laundry for customers.
Racial discrimination in the south, drove Bessie’s father, who was Native American from Texas back to his home in Oklahoma, where Native Americans enjoyed full civil rights. Her father hoped to build a better life for his family there, but Bessie’s mother remained in Texas with her children.
Coleman went to work as a laundress, hoping to make enough money to attend college. Even though local schools closed during the cotton picking season forcing children to work during the harvest, Coleman was determined to get an education. She borrowed books from a traveling library and learned enough to graduate from high school. In 1910, she attended Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now known as Langston University), but was forced to drop out after one semester because she ran out of money.
Frustrated that she had to return to her job as a laundress, Coleman moved to Chicago in 1915 to join her two brothers. Vowing to never work again as a maid or laundress, Bessie attended beauty school and worked as a men’s manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Coleman became known as the best and fastest manicurist in Chicago, but had higher aspirations.
Her brother John, who fought in World War I, teased Bessie that French women were superior to Chicago women because they could fly planes. John told his sister she would never be able to fly a plane like the French girls. Coleman set out to prove her brother wrong. She applied to flight schools throughout the country, but was rejected because she was Black and a woman.
Undaunted in her pursuit to become an aviator, Coleman heeded the advice of her friend Robert Abbott, publisher of the Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, who urged her to move to France where racism was not as prevalent to earn her pilot’s license. She began taking French lessons and took a higher paying job as a chili restaurant manager to save money for her move.
In 1920, Coleman sailed for France with her savings and donations from Abbott and other wealthy sponsors. She learned to fly using a French Nieuport plane. After only seven months of taking flying lessons at the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, Bessie became the first Black woman to obtain a license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
Upon returning to the states in 1921, Bessie quickly realized she needed to learn how to barnstorm and become an aerial daredevil if she ever wanted to make a living as a pilot. So, in 1922 she returned to Europe, learning barnstorming techniques in France and Germany.
Transforming herself into a celebrity of the skies, Bessie flew her first air show on September 3, 1922 at Glenn Curtiss Field in Garden City, New York. Sponsored by the Chicago Defender, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flyer.” She immediately became a star, thrilling audiences with dips and dives such as barrel rolls and loop the loops and unknowingly inspired other Black women to fly.
While preparing for a show in Los Angeles in 1923, Coleman had her first accident. The plane stalled, crashed and knocked Coleman unconscious. She suffered a broken leg and cracked ribs. After taking a year to recover, Bessie regained her fearless spirit and threw her flying into high-gear, touring the country giving exhibitions, flight lessons and lectures. On June 19, 1925, she returned to her home state of Texas to fly over Houston’s Aerial Transport Field to celebrate the anniversary of the day Blacks in Texas had achieved emancipation from slavery (“Juneteenth”).
Following the Houston show, Bessie returned to Waxahachie to fly in an event. Just like other cities in the segregated south, Whites and Blacks attending the event were required to sit in separate areas. At this event, officials even demanded attendees enter the airfield using separate White and Black only entrances. Throughout her life, Coleman tried to use her celebrity to break racial barriers. Coleman refused to perform unless all attendees entered through one gate. After labored negotiations, Coleman prevailed—guests entered through one gate and the show went on.
Sadly, while preparing for a show in Jacksonville, Florida in 1926, her career came to a tragic end. Flying with her mechanic William Wills, Bessie wasn’t wearing her seatbelt so she could lean over out of her seat to scout potential parachute landing spots for the show. Suddenly, the plane nosedived, throwing Coleman from the plane to her death and killing Wills upon impact. Investigators discovered a loose wrench had jammed the plane’s instruments causing Wills to lose control of the plane.
While Coleman never realized her dream of establishing her own flying school, she had a tremendous impact on aviation history and inspired many Black Americans. After her death Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs cropped up throughout the country. In 1977, the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was founded by Black women pilots for women of all races.
Bessie’s accomplishments in the skies most likely inspired the Tuskegee Airmen to take flight. In 1941, the US Army Air Force began a program to train Black men as military pilots. Nearly 1000 men completed flight training and many went on to fight in World War II. Between May, 1943 and June 9, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen compiled an enviable record– none of the bombers they escorted was lost to enemy fighters, they destroyed 251 enemy aircraft and won more than 850 medals.
Recognizing the courage and contribution Coleman made to American history, in 1990 Chicago Mayor Richard Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O’Hare Airport Bessie Coleman Drive. In 1995, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of her life. Ever focused on achieving her goals, Bessie never let the barriers of segregation and racism defeat her ambition of becoming a successful pilot.
In honor of Bessie’s great achievement, HIA Toys is proud to offer our Fearless Fly Girl action figure.