Sunday, January 25, 2009

For Jan. 26th: “The air is the only place free from prejudices”

Do you know who this is?
-She was known as “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie”
-She was the first African American woman pilot to receive a pilot’s license
-Every year on the anniversary of her death pilots put flowers on her grave

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26th, 1892, as the tenth of thirteen children. Her parents – George and Susan Coleman – were sharecroppers. Her father was a Native American, and her mother was an African American. They later moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she and her family picked cotton, and she helped with laundry for her mother’s customers.

Beginning at the age of six, Bessie would attend a one-room segregated rural school, walking four miles a day in order to attend. She excelled in math, loved to read, and would complete all eight grades of the one-room school. She often borrowed books from a travelling library to read and enlarge her world.

In 1901 her father – tiring of the racism of early 20th Century America, decided to return to the Cherokee Indian reservation in Oklahoma. His wife decided to stay in Waxahachie, and the family was split up. Bessie stayed with her mother and siblings in Waxahachie.

Bessie would enroll in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University, Langston, Oklahoma) when she was 18, but quit attending after her first term there because of lack of money to finance her continued education. She moved to back to Waxahachie, then in 1915 she moved to Chicago, Illinois, living with two of her brothers and securing a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop.

Bessie would find her role in life as she listened to pilots returning from World War I relating their experiences and reliving the excitement of flying through their stories. Her dream to fly was also fueled by a challenge from her brother John, a World War I veteran, who told her that French women were better than American women because they could fly airplanes. She tried to receive training in the US, but was turned down because she was Black and she was a woman. So Bessie, with the backing of some influential Black businessmen in Chicago, went to France, where she arrived on Nov. 20, 1920. In France, Bessie attended the well-known Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, learning the skills of being a pilot on a French Nieuport 82 trainer aircraft. Within seven months she was successful in becoming the first African American woman in the world to receive an international pilot’s license. She continued to improve her skills with private lessons from a French ace, finally sailing for America in September 1921.

Bessie had two major goals after achieving her pilot’s license: To make a living flying and to establish the first African American flight school. The reason for the second goal was because:
“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”
Commercial pilots did not exist in 1921, so the only way that Bessie could make money by flying was to perform exhibition flying - which was a dangerous, stunt filled, acrobatic style of flying known as barnstorming. Despite her international pilot’s license, she still could not get anyone in the United States to give her training in this area, so she returned to Europe for more extensive training in February, 1922. Returning later that year, she would participate in her first air show on September 23, 1922, at Glenn Curtis Field in New York.

She soon became a flying sensation and media favorite. She was soon billed as “the world’s greatest woman pilot”, and was travelling the nation. She most often flew the Curtis “Jenny” biplane as well as surplus World War I aircraft, and it was a stalled engine on a Jenny that would cause Bessie’s first accident – a crash which broke her leg and some ribs, and took her a year to fully recover from.

Bessie began performing again full time in 1925, touring a number of cities, including the town she grew up in, Waxahachie, Texas. Here she performed with one condition: while there was segregated seating, she insisted that there be only one gate where both Blacks and whites would enter into the airfield. Her condition was met – a small victory in the early battle against segregation.

Her aviation career would end tragically on April 30 1926, while preparing for a show in Jacksonville, Florida. She was riding in the passenger seat of her “Jenny” airplane while her mechanic William Willis piloted the aircraft. She was not wearing her seat belt at the time so she could lean over the edge of the cockpit and scout potential parachute landing spots for the parachute jump she was planning on performing the next day. The Jenny was put into a planned dive, then suddenly dropped into a steep nosedive and flipped over, catapulting her to her death after a 500-foot fall. Willis – strapped in to his seat – died when the plane crashed in a nearby field. After the accident, investigators discovered that Willis had lost control of the airplane because of a loose wrench which had jammed the plane’s instruments.

5000 mourners would attend her memorial service on May 2nd, 1926 – honoring the aviation pioneer before her body was shipped to Chicago for burial in Lincoln Cemetary.

Bessie’s career in the public eye what short, but spectacular. She would overcome the challenges of race and gender discrimination to become the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license, fighting segregation when she could by using her celebrity status to try to affect change, and having a dream – which she could never completely fulfill herself – of establishing a flight school for African Americans.

Her legacy and her dream continued after her death. She heightened interest in flying by showing both African Americans and women that difficulties could be overcome. As she once said, “I refused to take no for an answer.”

Many since Bessie have adopted that motto.

Local Library Resources:
Nikki Grimes: Talkin' 'bout Bessie: the Story of Aviator Bessie Coleman
Louise Borden: Fly High!: the Story of Bessie Coleman (Juvenile)

Reeve Lindbergh: Nobody Owns the Sky: the Story of "Brave Bessie" Coleman (Juvenile)

No comments:

Post a Comment