- Bessie Coleman, January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, United States of America – April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, United States of America.
In honor of Black History Month in the U.S., let’s take a look at Bessie Coleman, the first Black female licensed pilot.
Much of the personal history of Coleman was taken from: http://www.bessiecoleman.org/bio-bessie-coleman.php, the official Bessie Coleman website.
There may be some confusion as to who was the first Black/African-American woman to earn her pilot’s license.
Willa Brown Chappell earned was the first African American woman to do so in the United States, earning it in 1938, which you can read about HERE.
However, Chappell was not the first Black American woman to receive a pilot’s license – that honor belongs to Bessie Coleman, who did so in 1921, 17 years earlier, in France.
Because of rampant racism in the United States at that time, Coleman could not prove her worth as a pilot in America, and instead traveled to France where she earned her pilot’s license.
Sadly, I could not find an aviation card depicting her heroic achievement – something that MUST be rectified should any enterprising company decide to issue a new set of historical aviation trading cards.
Urban Intellectuals has produced a card with her image on it, but the 52-card set was created to honor Black history achievement, and is not aviation industry specific.
Still, for those interested, you can purchase a set by clicking HERE.
Coleman’s background is interesting, in that she was one of 13 kids, with a Black mother (Susan) and a father (George) who was of American Indian and Black descent.
Pre-1900, the Coleman’s moved to Waxahachie, Texas – but perhaps because of her father’s Indian background, he decided it might be safer for him if he left, and so in 1900 he returned to Oklahoma, which was then Indian Territory. Oklahoma became a State in 1907.
I’m reading a book on General Custer right now, that does not paint a pretty picture about how Native Americans were treated pre-1900 – which we all knew – but if you feel like reading an excellent recount on that era, I heartily recommend the non-fiction book: A Terrible Glory by James Donovan.
Susan Coleman, Bessie’s mom, remained in Waxahachie with the kids – because, I assume, just how safe would it have been for “Black half-breeds” in Indian Territory.
Racism runs both ways. Both in Coleman’s family, perhaps not.
The family picked cotton and helped washing clothes to make extra money.
Now, despite being the stereotypical Black woman picking cotton and taking in laundry, Bessie finished high school (unlike most Americans, regardless of color), and went to Langston Industrial College, which is now Langston University in Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, all that cotton picking and laundry work was only enough for her to attend a single semester, and moved to Chicago to stay with older brother, John.
In 1915, she went to the Burnham School of Beauty Culture to learn how to be a manicurist, and by 1916 she was renowned for her talent.
She would work at a few places in Chicago, including the White Sox Barber Shop, which owned by the trainer of Chicago’s American League baseball club.
Reading about WWI and the pilots, Coleman became enthralled by their daring, and thought that becoming a pilot might offer her a way out of “stereotype”.
“You nigger women ain’t never goin’ to fly, Not like those women I saw in France,” brother John Coleman said.
Bessie Coleman replied: “That’s it – You just called it for me.”
That’s when she made up her mind to become a pilot.
She applied to flying school after flying school, but we are talking pretty much turn of the century America, where men didn’t think women capable of anything except birthing babies and cooking a meal – plus, she was Black… or Brown… whatever… she wasn’t White.
While no one in the United States was willing to teach her how to fly, she felt that she might have a better chance in France, considering they did previously give a woman a pilot’s license there – Elise Raymonde Deroche, aka Raymonde de Laroche, who got her license in March of 1910 from the Aero Club of France. You can read about her HERE.
Eventually, Coleman’s efforts to become a flyer attracted the attention of Robert S. Abbott, the founder, editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily Weekly, a newspaper founded in 1905 for Black readership.
Abbott found out that the French still maintained their mania for aviation, and were less concerned about sex and race as other countries. This inspired Coleman to learn French, as the applications to the Flying schools in France, along with the teaching of it, would be in French. (This was also noted in the story on US hockey legend Hobey Baker, Hockey’s Most Famous Flyer, HERE.)
She was accepted into Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy, France’s then-most famous aviation school, managed by Gaston and Rene Caudron (SEE HERE)
Thanks to savings from her manicurist job and from her recently-acquired second job at a chili parlor (such things existed??!!), Coleman traveled from New York to France aboard the SS Impersonator leaving on November 20, 1920.
I have no idea how Coleman could afford accommodations, food and other expenses while there, but she spent the next 10 months at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy. Ten months! I believe that is about 3x more than most responsible aviation schools in the days BEFORE WWI.
As part of her enrollment, Coleman and other students were asked to sign a waiver in case of death, and it turns out that during her stay, she saw more than a few of her fellow students die in plane crashes—but she continued on unphased.
On June 15, 1921, the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy passed her as a qualified aviator—she had to demonstrate multiple skills, including shutting off the engine and landing—receiving international pilot’s license No. 18,310 from the Federation Aeronitique Internationale in France.
She was the first American of any race or gender to be directly awarded credential’s to pilot an airplane from the Federation Aeronitique Internationale.
She returned home without much fanfare, however, but some paid attention.
Aerial Age Weekly, October 17, 1921 writes:
“Miss Bessie Coleman, a colored girl of Chicago, twenty-four years old, who had been studying aviation in France for ten months, arrived in New York recently on the American liner Manchuria. She brought her credentials from the French certifying that she had qualified as an aviatrix.
Miss Coleman, who is having a special Nieuport scout plane built for her in France, said yesterday that she intended to make flights in this country as an inspiration for people of her race to take up aviation.”
While she awaited the construction and delivery of her Nieuport aeroplane, Coleman tried to find work within the aviation industry, but was unable to—she wanted to purchase another aircraft in the U.S. to help her pay for the one she was having made for her in France.
The Bessie Coleman official website notes that Coleman was “disheartened with America’s treatment”, but while prejudice over her sex and race may have had a hand in her inability to find work in the aviation industry, it should be noted that after WWI, the aviation industry took a big dive. Companies that were building aircraft found that their planes were no longer in demand with the war over.
As well, with the war over, returning men who had piloted during the war were considered war heroes and were probably considered for what aviation piloting jobs there were before the “upstart Coleman”.
In May of 1922, Coleman traveled back to France, German, Holland and Switzerland to learn more advanced aviation techniques.
Where did she get the money for this, and her travels through Europe? How could she afford to fly once there?
She studied with the famous WWI German ace pilot, Captain Keller and test piloted airplanes in the Netherland for Anthony Fokker, the “Flying Dutchman”. Fokker, of course, was the designer or the Fokker Tri-plane, used by such famous German fliers as the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen and Oswald Boelcke who had taught the Red Baron.
I could assume that Coleman flew Fokkers while in Germany, or perhaps she was flying the Nieuport scout she was having constructed for her previously.
Again… where the heck did the money come from?
Perhaps she earned money doing barnstorming with Fokker and Keller while in Europe, but I can not find evidence to back that up – but in all honesty, I have not delved into the newspaper archives of Germany to find out… and they’d be in German, which I can’t read. Ich bin so ein dummkopf.
As an aside, I can NOT find a Captain Keller anywhere who was considered to be an ace pilot for Germany during WWI. It would have helped if a first name was offered.
She learned how to perform and perfect: figure eights; loop the loops, trick climbs, and landing the airplane with the engine off.
Back in New York on August 14, 1922, she had credentials from the Aero Club of France, and European newspaper articles that showed foreign royalty entertaining her. She even had an article that exhibited Anthony Fokker praising her at a banquet for being the only American aviator who ever crossed the Kaiser’s palace at Potsdam.
The New York Times said Coleman was known by “leading French and Dutch aviators as one of the best flyers they had seen.”
Coleman still wanted to set up and run a Flying school for Blacks, but needed money, and began looking for flying opportunities.
Perhaps because such a mainstream media as The New York Times lauded her, on September 3, 1922 Coleman flew at an airshow at Curtiss Airfield in Garden City, Long Island, NY, for an integrated (Black and White) crowd.
Wearing a military-like uniform, she flew a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) biplane that was loaned to her for this event by the Glenn Curtiss Airplane Company, an event that was dedicated to the segregated 15th regiment of Infantry, the first African American regiment sent to France during WWI.
Along with passenger Captain McVey, Coleman flew, performing spirals and loops.
During a later flight, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, an officer of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association of New York, parachuted from the wing of her plane.
Afterwards, she made plenty of money taking folk up in her plane for a ride, charging the $5 each in 1922 dollars.
Coleman flew next on October 12, 1922 at the Tri-State Fair in Memphis, Tennessee, being billed as “the principal thrill” for another integrated crowd.
With the help of the Chicago Defender calling her “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”, some 2,000+ people came out to the Checkerboard Airdrome (now known as Midway Airport) in Chicago.
Again wearing that military-like uniform, Coleman’s program honored the 8th Regiment, another Black military unit.
During four flights of 10 minutes each, she performed loop-the-loops and a Richthofen glide (I believe it’s a spiral glide).
During one part of the show, Coleman’s sister Georgia, clad in a patriotic red, white & blue outfit, was to parachute from the plane at an altitude of 2,000 feet (609.6 meters), but she refused to perform the stunt.
I wonder just how much practice Georgia had prior to this!?!
Later while performing a figure-eight, Coleman appeared to lose control of the plane, but recovered well enough for the awestruck spectators to call her “Brave Bessie”, which only made her more in demand.
At her next event in Gary, Indiana, she met David Lewis Behncke, founder and President of the Air Line Pilots Association International who became her manager for a short time until they argued over Coleman’s desire to take her act into the South in May of 1925.
In late February of 1923, Coleman was flying and dropping advertisements for Coast Tire and Rubber Company in Los Angeles, California, earning her enough money to purchase her own Curtiss Jenny biplane – though it was an used military model from WWI.
Just after purchasing her new used aircraft, Coleman took that Jenny up at a show, and just after take-off, the engine stalled at an altitude of 300 feet (91.44 meters), causing the plane to nosedive into the ground.
Coleman survived, but she had several broken ribs, a broken leg, and multiple lacerations.
Now in Houston, Texas in May of 1925 as her base of operations, Coleman went on her Southern States tour.
It was in the spring of 1926, Coleman was asked to perform at the annual celebration of the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida.
Edwin Beeman, a rich, young White man, the son and sole heir of Harry Beeman of the Beeman Chewing Gum Company, found Coleman and her flying skills intoxicating, and gave her enough money to complete her final airplane payment on her Jenny, and had the plane flown from Texas to Jacksonville, Florida where an exhibition was scheduled for May 1, 1926.
The plane was being flown by Curtiss Southwestern Airplane and Motor Company pilot and mechanic William D. Wills, a White man from Texas, who flew from Love Field in Texas in her Jenny powered by a 980 horsepower OX-5 engine. It took 21 hours to fly to Jacksonville.
When the plane arrived, she met her friend Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender newspaper in a Jacksonville restaurant on April 29, 1926, where he he begged her to not continue her plans to have a test flight… but since she had promised a man named John Betsch a ride after her trial, she said she couldn’t back out.
On April 30, 1926, Betsch drove Coleman to Paxon airfield to meet William Wills who had flown the plane to her, and would co-pilot with her for the test flight.
After Wills said the plane was ready, Coleman dropped to her knees for a prayer, and when done asked Wills to take control of the plane while she studied the site from above for a good place to parachute.
With Wills at the control and 10 minutes into the flight at an altitude of 3,000 feet (914.4 meters), the plane suddenly went into a steep nosedive.
At around 2,000 feet (609.6 meters) the airplane flipped over causing Coleman—who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt for some reason—to flip out and plummet to her death.
Normally, Coleman would be wearing both a seatbelt and a parachute, but for whatever reason, on that flight she was not.
Pilot Wills had his seatbelt on, and as the plane smashed into the ground, he died instantly.
And it gets worse, if you can believe it.
Just minutes later as the police were trying to remove Wills body from the wreckage, the would-be passenger Betsch lit a cigarette and tossed it on the ground, where it ignited gasoline spilled from the wrecked plane.
Both the airplane and the body of Wills exploded in flames.
It was discovered that a loose wrench had slipped from Wills tool bag and had jammed the plane’s controls.
Altough Coleman never did start that Flying School for Black would-be pilots, in 1929 Lieutenant William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.
Powell was born in Henderson, Kentucky and moved with his family to Chicago, where he was accepted to the University of Illinois electrical engineering program. He dropped out to volunteer for WWI, for the 370th Illinois Infantry Regiment.
After being wounded in a gas attack, he returned and finished his degree. Like Coleman, he loved aviation, finally getting into a Flying School in 1928 at the Los Angeles School of Flight.
As of 1932, Powell was one of 14 Black aviators in the U.S., and was also a licensed navigator and aeronautical engineer.
On Labor Day, September 7, 1931, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club helped sponsor the first all-Black air show in America, attracting some 15,000 spectators.
Since 1931, each year, on the anniversary of her death, Black pilots fly over her grave at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago and drop flowers in her honor.
Her gravestone contains a tinted photograph of Coleman in her military-style flying uniform.