Monday, April 4, 2016

C is for Bessie Coleman - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Bessie Coleman had more than her share of obstacles in life. Born and raised in Atlanta, Texas in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor, she was the tenth of thirteen children. Her parents, George and Susan Coleman, were the children of slaves and neither could read or write. Bessie was part Black and Cherokee (on her father’s side). A career in aviation was perhaps the furthest from her thoughts. 

Bessie attended school through the eighth grade in a  one-room schoolhouse, which often closed so students could work in the cotton fields with their families. Bessie enjoyed school and didn’t mind the four mile walk. She liked to read and excelled in math.

In 1901, George left the family to seek better work in Oklahoma (Indian Territory), but Bessie stayed behind in Texas with her mother and remaining two brothers and two sisters. Eager to improve her lot in life with education, Bessie saved her money and at 18-years-old enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Unfortunately, the savings ran out and she had to return home. Three years later, she left home again and found work
as a manicurist in Chicago, where her brothers lived.

It was in Chicago that Bessie’s interest in aviation grew. Enthralled with the stories of WWI pilots, Bessie dreamed about becoming a pilot, but American flight schools refused admission to blacks and women. Even a male black aviator, she’d met, refused to help. A beacon of hope surfaced when Robert S. Abbott (a local newspaper publisher) suggested she try overseas. A banker, Jesse Binga, then offered to fund her venture. Now that Bessie had a goal and the money, she needed to learn French. She took lessons at a school in Chicago and at the still young age of 28 left for Paris to get her pilot’s license.

A French Nieport
In Paris Bessie learned to fly a Nieport, a type of biplane. The plane had a baseball bat-size stick to steer with and there was a rudder bar for her feet. It couldn’t have been easy to learn, but excel she did. Bessie achieved her goal, earning her pilot’s license in 1921. She was the First African American /Native American woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Likewise, she was the first African American/Native American woman to earn an international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. 

Bessie stayed in Paris for two months, flying around and perfecting her flying skills.

When she returned home to the states, she became a media dream come true. Touted as the French ace pilot, Bessie embarked on a speaking tour. She wanted to be a leader in the aviation field and introduce the world of flight to her race. Eventually, she wanted to open a flight school, with opportunities for all. She spoke in churches, schools, and theaters, determined to inspire interest. Blacks and whites both enjoyed her often exaggerated public talks and called her “Queen Bess.” 

Meanwhile, Bessie wanted her own plane. A Florida pastor and his wife offered her lodging, so she could open a beauty shop in Orlando and earn extra money. With a plane, Bessie knew she could earn money as a barnstorming stunt flier. This required more skill, but once again, Bessie hit a brick wall trying to find instructors in the U.S. willing to teach her. Sooo... she returned to Europe in 1922 for instruction in France, and also consulted and trained with experts in the Netherlands and Germany. 

Bessie participated in her first air show at Curtiss field (Long Island, NY) that same year. She was 30-years-old. Her newspaper friend in Chicago sponsored her and the show promoted her as “the world’s greatest woman flier.” Eight more ace pilots and a parachutist participated in the event. Several weeks later, she performed at a Chicago air show, showing off her daredevil maneuvers, complete with near-ground dips, figure eights, and loops. Bessie had achieved her goal as a barnstorming stunt flyer.

But barnstorming was only part of Bessie’s dream. She really wanted to start a flight school and that took money she didn’t have. When an African American Seminole film producer offered her a role in the movie, Shadow and Sunshine, she jumped at the chance. Her role, however, was that of a poor black woman, beaten down by life. Bessie quit, finding the portrayal of blacks as demeaning and uninspiring. This was not the image she wanted to portray to others of her race.

Bessie returned to her career as a barnstormer. She was 34-years-old. Eager to try out her new Curtiss JN-4 (called a “Jenny”) at an air show in Jacksonville, Florida, she had a pilot fly the plane so she could scope out the area from the backseat before the event. The pilot, William D. Wills, had just flown the plane from Dallas and it appeared to be in poor mechanical condition. Wills had made three forced landings just getting the plane from Dallas to Florida. Friends and family, learning of its condition, urged Bessie not to fly in the air show. Bessie ignored the warnings. Ten minutes into the flight with Wills, the plane went into a dive and began to spin. Thrown from the plane, Bessie fell to the ground and the plane burst into flames. Bessie and the pilot died on impact. Investigators of the crash later discovered in the wreckage that a wrench (used to service the engine) had worked its way into the gearbox and jammed it.

Bessie Coleman’s story continues to inspire all who hear it. Her courageous spirit, intelligence, and perseverance against the worst of odds are admirable. Honors abound in her name.

Of Special Note:
--Scholarships for high school seniors interested in aviation as a career
--Bessie’s induction into the prestigious National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006

Named in Her Honor:

--A public library in Chicago
--Roads at airports: O’Hare International Airport (Chicago); Oakland International Airport (Oakland, CA); Tampa international airport (FL); Frankfurt International Airport (Germany)
--Bessie Coleman Middle School (Cedar Hill, TX)
--Bessie Coleman Boulevard (Waxahachie, TX)
--B. Coleman Aviation, a Fixed Base Operator (Gary/Chicago International Airport)
--U.S. postage stamps

Other Aviators:

Ruth Chatterton (1892-1961) USA
Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980) USA

Ellen Church (1904-1965) USA
Violet Cowden (1916-2011) USA

Edith Maud Cook (1878-1910) UK

Maie Casey (Baroness) (1892-1983) Australia


  1. She inspired her nephew to become a pilot. I think there's an annual flyover over her grave by women pilots.

    1. I didn't know that! Thanks. Isn't it great the number of people she still inspires? And there's the scholarship too.

  2. Great post. This is another remarcable woman. The paioneering days of aviation sound so exciting, though also very dangerous.
    Thanks fo rsharing.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

    1. It was all part of the adventure. thanks for reading!

  3. I loved Bessie's story. You must have had so much fun researching this theme.
    Writing Women’s Fiction

  4. Awesome post! Such a wonderful, inspiring story! Thank you!!!

  5. I wish all people who whine about not having opportunities would read about Bessie. She's a model for people with dreams who are challenged by poverty and discrimination. What a success story she created.

  6. Agree with your previous commenter and I'm feeling inspired by Bessie's achievements. Great post!
    Rosa Temple writes...

    1. I'm inspired too :) Thanks so much for visiting!

  7. Another great post, and also so interesting to read.

  8. Amazing story!... Again ending in a crash... XD But still amazing. It is kind of frustrating that Americans would take her as a spectacle, but not sponsor or teach her... go figure. What an inspirational lady!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    1. Yes, it is sad. It was hard for a lot of women but not all.

  9. I have never heard of her but what an inspiration! She had to overcome so much. I just wish she would have listened to her friends and family. Ruth Chatterton, the actress, was also an aviator? I didn't know that

    1. Didn't know that about Ruth Chatterton. So many are interested in flying. I never was, missed that gene.

  10. Another fantastic account. Such perseverance--including learning French!--and determination to set more and more goals and achieve them. We're learning so much here about amazing women, thanks :-)

    1. And having to learn French didn't stop her either. So many would have given up!

  11. A fascinating and inspiring post. Thanks for sharing this information.

  12. I doff my metaphorical hat to Queen Bess ... what an extraordinary story of tenacity and grit. Good on her for refusing to take part in that film as a poor black woman. But sad about the wrench being caught in the gear box ... sometimes, I wonder if this is the best way to die, in the manner in which one's dreams came true ... in her case, flying ... so great that her memory remains in an active sense .. thanks Sharon, truly inspiring :)

    1. I liked her stand against the film too! She had a deep sense about what was important. Shocking and sad about the wrench. Life happens like that sometimes and it never seems fair.

  13. She had every right to expect nothing from life. I guess many people born in humble circumstances aspire to break free and achieve great things, but I suspect most don't. Good on you, Bessie.

    1. And everything to gain, but she was the exception breaking free of those circumstances! Thanks David for visiting.

  14. Very interesting. A shame she had to die at the hand of another pilot.

  15. I know. Really hated learning how she had died :( Life hits us like that sometimes and simply doesn't make sense.
    Thanks for commenting Denise and for all your support!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.