January 26, 1892 to April 30, 1926
Bessie was born 10th in a sibling line of 13 her father was part Cherokee and mother African American.
Her parents were sharecroppers and Bessie had to walk four miles to school each day from the age of 6. As a racialized person Bessie was forced to attend a segregated one room school. She loved to read and distinguished herself as an excellent math student.
At age 18 Bessie used her personal savings from working in the cotton harvest to attend the Oklahoma Coloured Agricultural and Normal University. She could only afford to attend one term before she was forced to return home.
In 1915 she moved to Chicago where she lived and worked with her brothers at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. It was here that she overheard stories of flying from aviators returning from WWI.
She attempted to enrol in the American flight school and was turned away because she was both a woman and black. She found support for her dream in Jesse Binga who provided her the financial support necessary to attend flight school in Paris France. On November 20, 1920 Bessie started her career as an aviator learning to fly a Nieuport Type 82 biplane.
“On June 15, 1921, Bessie became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license…and the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so” (Wikipedia, 2014) She attended the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in just seven months. (Bio True Story, 2014)
She returned to America in 1921 to wide spread curiosity, news coverage and no way to use her aviation skills to earn an income expect as a stunt flier for a paying audience. To do this she once again returned to Europe where she trained in France, Netherlands and Germany with master stunt flyers.
Back in the United States she became known as ‘Queen Bess’ and performed for large biracial audiences. She was billed as ‘the world’s greatest woman flier’.
Bessie died before she was able to create her dream a school for black aviators. Bessie Coleman was 34 when she died in the plane she was flying in, unexpectedly started into a dive and she was thrown from the plane.
Lieutenant William J. Powell wrote of Bessie Colman in Black Wings
“we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream”
In 1977 the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was established by African American female pilots.
“Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude, and her determination to succeed.” (PBS, 2014)
As mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sister and friends it is important that we remember and celebrate Bessie Coleman’s courage and tenacity in following her dream. A dream that meant that she had to overcome not one but two socially accepted obstacles she was a racialized women.
I encourage you to visit the Bessie Coleman Website to read more about this amazing woman.
Bio True Story. (2014). Bessie Coleman biography. Retrieved from biography: http://www.biography.com/people/bessie-coleman-36928
PBS. (2014). Bessie Coleman (1892-1926). Retrieved from PBS Home: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flygirls/peopleevents/pandeAMEX02.html
Wikipedia. (2014). Bessie Coleman. Retrieved from Wikipedia: Jesse Binga