BESSIE COLEMAN, AVIATRIX by Cheryl Walker
The story, written by my wife, Cheryl, during her undergraduate education at Arizona State University in the mid 1990s. Cheryl graduated Summa Cum Laude and was ranked highest out of the then 46,000 ASU students. She gave both the Commencement Address and the Convocation Speech. Both were literally flawless and spellbinding. I thought this, but heard the same from several others in attendance. It literally blew me away as she had never spoken publicly before.
Cheryl continued her education via scholarship to earn her master’s degree from ASU. Following her studies she became a school counselor at Towne Meadows Elementary, Gilbert, Arizona. She resigned after just three months to be with me on our new adventure as part of the start-up team that became JetBlue Airways. I still joke that her’s was a fast career path. Just a couple of years ago she received her state retirement. It was a total of $1800 dollars! More on our JetBlue adventure to follow…
This article is a commentary written by Pat Murphy in reference to an HBO movie about the “‘Fighting 99th’-the all-black fighter squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen.” The article relates the story of Bessie Coleman, a woman who fought much opposition to become the first African American pilot.
In the late 1980s, Murphy researched Bessie’s life and achievements in hopes of developing his writings into a movie. He was unsuccessful at finding someone to take on the film project.
Bessie was born near Waxahachie, Texas, then later moved to Chicago. Because of her race and gender, no one in the United States would teach her how to fly. However, she was a very persistent young woman. She took French lessons then headed for France where she learned to fly and received her pilot’s license. She returned to the United States in 1922 to pursue her dream of starting a flying school for other African Americans.
She became a popular figure socially and professionally among whites as well as blacks, unusual in those days of strict segregation. She flew daring aerobatics in air shows and gave commercial endorsements throughout the country. While attaining a celebrity status, she also became a pioneer for integration because she refused to perform if the audiences were not racially mixed.
Bessie did not live long enough to realize her dream of a pilot school for African Americans. She died in a horrible accident in 1926, when she was thrown to the ground from an open-cockpit airplane. However, in the article, Murphy makes the assertion that Bessie Coleman was the inspiration for the formation of the all-black squadron who fought in World War II. Therefore, HBO’s movie, The Tuskegee Airmen will be “a lasting tribute to her vision.”
My reason for choosing this article about Bessie Coleman was twofold. First, I am very interested in women pioneers in general. Secondly, the books that I had in school lacked information regarding the African American heroes and history makers. Therefore, I want to learn more about both subjects.
1921• June 15:
After seven months of instruction by French and German aviators, Bessie Coleman receives a pilot’s certificate from the Federation Aeronautic International in Paris. She is the first black woman to become a licensed pilot and the first person of any race or sex to receive an international pilot’s license, allowing her to fly in any part of the world. She returns to the United States as a celebrity and for the next five years will perform in air shows, encouraging Black Americans to go into aviation. She will die in an air crash in 1926.
Bessie Coleman on the wheel of the Curtiss Jenny
Young Girl with the Right Stuff
Story by Ron Edwards
Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to become a pilot and one of the most sensational stunt fliers during the Roaring 20s, came close to never getting off the ground.
Born January 26, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie was just learning to walk when the family moved to Waxhachie, about 30 miles south of Dallas. When she was seven, her father decided he was tired of family life and went to Oklahoma, leaving her mother to raise 13 children.
Everyone helped make ends meet by picking cotton and washing clothes. It was not the life Bessie dreamed about. “If we’re going to better ourselves,” she said, “we’ve got to get above these cotton fields.” Frightened at the prospect of fieldwork for a living, she began thinking of ways to escape a depressing future when an extraordinary event over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., changed her life forever.
On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright eased into the biplane he and his brother, Wilbur, had built. He opened the throttle of a 12-hp homebuilt engine and took to the air. He was the first person to successfully fly a heavier-than-air machine. During the next few years, daring aerial feats began to appear in newspapers and magazines. Pilots became heroes, performing in fragile airplanes for wide-eyed crowds.
Bessie had discovered a way to rise above the cotton fields. “I read everything I could get my hands on about aviating. Some of the libraries wouldn’t let black girls who picked cotton borrow books, but the books I wanted were about piloting and folks were so surprised, they let me have them anyway.”
Bessie’s first achievement came when she received her high school diploma. She enrolled at Langston Industrial College, but could afford to attend for only one semester. Although discouraged, she was determined to succeed. She went to live with a brother in Chicago, while going to beauty school. Afterwards, she worked as a manicurist and dreamed of becoming a daredevil pilot, like those she read about in magazines.
One flying school after another closed the door as soon as she expressed a desire to become an aviator. The cold-shoulder treatment did not cool her fiery spirit, but Bessie quickly realized she would have to overcome strong headwinds of racial bias to reach her goal. Long hours of toiling in the fields was a way of life for many blacks, and a world of trouble awaited those who sought a better life. Besides, it was a well-known “fact” that blacks lacked the aptitude for flying. Other females preceded Bessie Coleman in becoming pilots, but Bessie was the first Black woman to attain that goal.
Someone told her that France didn’t care if you were a girl, even a black girl. In 1909 the Baroness Raymonde de la Roche became the first woman aviator. Two years later Harriet Quimby, an American, was the first to earn a license, and then won fame as the first female to cross the English Channel in 1912. That same year, France was a long way across the Atlantic, but Bessie would not be defeated. It took a lot of courage even to seek such a lofty goal. Her dedication was matched by dogged perseverance that finally opened the door. Katherine Stinson became the first woman airmail pilot. Bessie idolized these aerial pioneers and they soon became her inspiration.
Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Weekly Defender, heard about the young black girl who wanted to fly. His queries to various French schools confirmed that color and sex posed no barriers, and he decided to help Bessie get accepted.
Then another barrier arose.
Although it might be possible for Bessie to attend a flight school in France, it would be futile unless she knew the language. Encouraged by advice and support from her newly-found newspaper friend, Bessie saved money from her jobs as a manicurist and waitress, and studied French at a language school.
Several months later Bessie sailed to Le Crotoy, France, and quickly learned about the dangers of flying. The trainers were frail, unstable machines that were difficult to control. Many of her fellow students had accidents and some were killed. But Bessie was determined and nothing could change her mind. She had not come across the ocean just to quit when the task became more challenging. She worked very hard and graduated ten months later on June 15, 1921.
Bessie was the only black female pilot in the world when she returned to America with her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, However, her plan to start a flying school for black men and women would have to be postponed until she could raise some capital. She was unemployed and had used nearly all her savings while in France. It was time to put her new flying skills to work as an air show performer.
During Labor Day weekend near Manhattan in 1922, a big crowd came to see what no one had ever seen-a woman flier. And what a flier she was. Throughout the afternoon, Bessie thrilled everyone with loops, figure eights, and other precision demonstrations. Six weeks later she gave an enthusiastic crowd another death-defying performance at Checkerboard Aerodrome in Chicago. While doing a figure eight maneuver, it appeared she had lost control of her plane. But it was just part of the act, and the crowd breathed a sigh of relief when she recovered and landed safely. Fans began calling her “Brave Bessie,” and cheered when she appeared in her military-style uniform. Her superb ability made her a star at air shows across the country.
As her aerial ballet danced across the sky, the daring young girl, in her flying machine, realized her good fortune; she had found a better life high above the cotton fields.
Bessie moved to Houston and began a successful barnstorming career. She also was in demand as a lecturer. Captive audiences in churches and theaters listened to vivid descriptions of her adventures “Where never lark, or even eagle flew.”
During one performance a woman parachutist did not arrive, and the unruly crowd demanded a refund. Bessie was a real trooper and knew that “the show must go on.” She did the parachute jump herself.
Some people were not thrilled by fearless feats of airmanship. They came to gawk at engine failures, ripping fabric, snapping wings, and flaming death. Bessie never allowed the blood-thirsty spectators to affect her cheerful smile. She was doing what she loved and never thought of danger while performing for her fans.
One morning in the early ’20s, Bessie’s luck ran out.
She rolled across the ground and rose gracefully into the California sky. Moments later, something went wrong and the plane fell back to earth. Bessie was rushed to the hospital with a broken leg, fractured ribs and other injuries. It was her first accident. Reporters hurried to Bessie’s bedside and found her spirits high. She assured them she “would soon be back in the air.”
One year later her broken bones had mended, but Bessie decided to remain on the ground awhile. She moved to Chicago and began living a quiet life, away from the cheering crowds. She entertained at her home and tried to persuade her famous guests to help establish a flying school. Although they applauded the enterprise, their praise was more generous than their donations.
Eventually, Bessie felt that her life had become boring. She missed the excitement of flying and began appearing in air shows at county fairs and carnivals. It was fun to be sweeping the clouds again.
In 1926 Bessie was invited to perform at the annual Negro Welfare League in Florida. With William Wills, her mechanic and public relations manager, she took off from Dallas and made rwo emergency landings before arriving in Jacksonville on April 30th.
While Wills made repairs to the plane, Bessie went to the restaurant and found a pleasant surprise. Robert Abbott, her old friend who had helped her get into flying school, had come to see her perform and they enjoyed a happy reunion.
A check flight was necessary after Wills’ repairs were completed. As Bessie walked toward the plane, Abbott had a sudden premonition and urged her not to fly. She ignored his frantic pleas and told him not to worry. It would be a short hop around the field and everything would be fine. She had promised to give a young college student a ride, and wanted to get the test out of the way.
She climbed into the cockpit, started the engine and waved to Abbott. Moments later she soared into the clear blue sky and turned the controls over to Wills, who would do the maneuvers. He put the plane into a steep dive at 3,000 feet. Then disaster struck. The plane flipped upside down and Bessie fell out. Until this flight, she had always observed all safety rules. But for some reason she had not fastened her seatbelt and was not wearing a parachute. Bessie Coleman, of Waxhachie, Texas, one of 13 children raised by her mother, became the world’s first black female aviator to die in an aircraft accident.
William Wills tried to move the stick but it would not budge. He could not bring the plane out of the dive and was killed on impact. Although Bessie was alive when the ambulance sped away, she died at 7:30 that evening. The accident was caused by a wrench that had jammed the controls.
Anxious spectators who had come to see Bessie’s thrilling air show instead paid their last respects to the 33 year old aerial daredevil. Her body was returned to Chicago and buried in Lincoln Cemetery. Bessie Coleman’s death ended a promising career, yet for a brief moment in time she cherished a childhood dream that came true.
A few years later Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs became a reality. The first all-black air show in America attracted a crowd of 15,000 on Labor Day in 1931. A flying school for black men and women was formed the next year. A pair of black fliers in Los Angeles made headlines during their flight across America in 1932. James Herman Banning and his mechanic, Thomas C Allen, bought a used airplane and completed the transcontinental journey.