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Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, one of thirteen children. Her mother was black and her father was of American Indian and of black descent. Her father left when she was seven and her mother did her best to raise the family alone. The children helped by picking cotton; and the girls, as soon as they were old enough, helped with the washing their mother took in to make ends meet.
Bessie had a drive to better herself and became an avid reader. By using the traveling library that came through two or three times a year, Bessie managed to finish high school (not a small achievement in those days). Although her mother let her keep her earnings from washing and ironing, Bessie could only afford to attend college for one semester. She was determined to get ahead, and show the way to others, handicapped by what she believed were the evils of racism, poverty, and ignorance. Shortly after World War I, she made a firm decision to learn to fly. She read everything she could on the subject. She tried applying to one flying school after another, but was quickly turned down. In those times (1919 and 1920), her race was an obvious reason and her sex was another for being denied.
She did not stop there. With the help of an editor and publisher of the Chicago Weekly Defender, Bessie learned French and contacted an aviation school in France. With her savings from her manicurist's job and working in a chili parlor, Bessie made two trips to Europe. There she learned about the hazards of flight and in 1921, earned her license (two years before Amelia Earhart) from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She was the only licensed black pilot in the world.
After taking aerobatic training she returned to the U.S. where for five years she toured the country, barnstorming, organizing exhibition flights and speaking in churches and schools about the potential both of flight and of her race. Bessie one of hundreds of high-spirited stunt flyers. They flew World War I `Jennies' (U.S. Army Curtiss JN-4) and DeHavilands. When a woman parachutist failed to show to perform a stunt, Bessie made the jump. She always did what she thought had to be done.
Proclaimed Queen Bess by the Chicago Defender, her daring airborne feats thrilled thousands. She also dreamed of opening a flying school so she did stunt-flying and barn-storming to further raise money. While on the barn-storming circuit in 1926 at Paxon Field, Jacksonville, FL, Bessie's Jenny went into a nose dive and Bessie was thrown from the plane to her death during a test flight.
Shortly after her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Groups were organized by William J. Powell and on Labor Day, 1931, those flying clubs sponsored the first all-black air show in America. Bessie's dream of a school for black aviators finally became a reality in 1932.
From Leadership: 2000 And Beyond, Vol. I, Civil Air Patrol, Maxwell AFB, Alabama and materials provided by Jim Thompson of African-American Heroes.
For pictures and more information on Bessie Coleman, go to the ALLSTAR Learning
Blacks in Aviation section.
Ms. Pamela Martin of the National Aviation Hall of Fame has informed us that Bessie Coleman will be inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame on July 15, 2006. The Hall of Fame is located in Dayton, OH.
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Updated: 14 September, 2005