Known to an admiring public as "Queen Bess," Bessie Coleman was the first black woman ever to fly an airplane and the first African American to earn an international pilot's license. During her brief yet distinguished career as a performance flier, she appeared at air shows and exhibitions across the United States, earning wide recognition for her aerial skill, her dramatic flair and her tenacity. But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman's dream. Forced for a time to work as a laundress and manicurist to make ends meet, Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day "amount to something."
As a professional aviatrix, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. Unfortunately, Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her greatest dream — establishing a school for young, black aviators — but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. "Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings, "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. When she was two years old, her family moved to a small farm near the town of Waxahachie, 30 miles south of Dallas. One of 13 children, she spent most of her time looking after her younger sisters and brothers. During the long cotton-picking season, the local school shut down so that the children could help with the harvest. Coleman was an eager student, though, and craved the challenge and excitement of school. She earned top marks, especially in mathematics.
When she was nine years old, her father — who was three-quarters Indian — left the family to return to his home state of Oklahoma. Worn out by racial discrimination in Texas, he hoped to build a better life for himself in a region where those with Indian blood could enjoy full civil rights. Rather than uproot the family, Coleman's mother remained in Texas, taking in laundry and picking cotton to support herself and her children. Coleman completed eighth grade at the top of her class, then went to work as a laundress, hoping to save enough money from washing and ironing to pay for her secondary and college education.
In 1910 she enrolled at the preparatory school of the Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma, but her money ran out after only one semester. She was forced to return to Texas and resume her job as a laundress. By 1915 she had had enough of the humiliating life of a domestic worker and left to join her brother, Walter, in Chicago. From that time on, the "Windy City" became her adopted home. Determined not to work as a cook, maid, or laundress, Coleman enrolled at a Chicago beauty school and completed a course in manicuring. One of her first jobs was as a men's manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, owned by the trainer of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Here, her charm and good looks earned her numerous admirers as well as generous tips. Among her many gentlemen friends was Claude Glenn, a much older man whom she married in 1917 but lived with only briefly.
Within a short time, wrote Doris Rich in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Coleman gained a reputation as the "best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago" and mingled with many of the city's wealthiest and most powerful black citizens. One of her newfound friends was Robert S. Abbott, editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper. His support and encouragement helped convince her to pursue what initially seemed an impossible dream. Polishing nails was more appealing than cooking or folding laundry, but Coleman craved adventure and recognition.
In the early 1920s, women pilots were a rarity and black women pilots were a virtual impossibility. But to Coleman, who had read newspaper accounts of aviation heroes and listened with rapt attention to her brother's wartime tales of French women aviators, a career in flying offered an irresistible challenge. She made up her mind to become an aviator. "From the moment Bessie decided to become a pilot nothing deterred her," wrote Rich. "The respect and attention she longed for, her need to 'amount to something,' were directed at last toward a definite goal. Ignoring all the difficulties of her sex and race, her limited schooling and present occupation, she set off to find a teacher."
After receiving a string of rejections from American aviation schools, Coleman turned to Abbott for advice. He suggested that she learn French, save her money, and apply to accredited flying schools in France, where racism would be less of a barrier. Before long she had completed a course in basic French at a downtown language school and secured a better job as manager of a chili parlor. The money she saved from her work — together with gifts from a number of wealthy sponsors, including Abbott — was enough to pay for her passage to Europe as well as her flying lessons. She sailed for France in November of 1920, and upon her arrival enrolled in a seven-month training course at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy.
Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, described by Rich as a "fragile vehicle of wood, wire, steel, aluminum, cloth, and pressed cardboard," with "a steering system [that] consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet." In June of 1921, after completing seven months of instruction and a rigorous qualifying exam, she received her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the first black woman in the institution's history to do so. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September sailed for New York.
Coleman's triumphant return was front-page news for most of the country's black newspapers and even a number of industry journals, which, according to Rich, hailed her as "a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race." Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator — the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future — she would need to become a stunt flier, or "barnstormer," and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire.
Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February of 1922 she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for Holland to meet with Anthony H. G. Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots.
In August she returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying. With her mix of talent and daring, Coleman was still missing one ingredient. To attract paying audiences, Coleman needed publicity — or, more specifically, the attention and endorsement of a jaded and often dismissive press. "Bessie realized that to make a living at flying she would first have to dramatize herself, like Roscoe Turner, the great speed pilot who wore a lion-tamer's costume when he flew and took his pet lion, Gilmore, along in the second cockpit," wrote Rich. "Speaking to reporters, Bessie now began to draw upon everything at her command — her good looks, her sense of theater, and her eloquence — to put her own campaign of self-dramatization into high gear.... Everything she told them was purposefully selected to enhance the image of a new, exciting, adventurous personality."
Coleman made her first appearance in an American air show on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flyer" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers — including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips — to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Midway Airport). Following the show, she and David L. Behncke, founder and president of the International Airline Pilots Association and cosponsor of the event, took eager spectators for joy rides in a pair of two-seater planes.
From Chicago, Coleman went on to perform at air shows in cities around the country, gaining wide publicity and enthusiastic fans wherever she went. Shortly after her Chicago debut, however, she became embroiled in a political controversy that nearly ruined her career. Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African-American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed.
"Clearly," wrote Rich, "[Bessie's] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks." Colman's stand cost her. In breaking her movie contract, she succeeded in alienating some of the most powerful men in the black entertainment world. In a series of interviews, J. A. Jackson of Billboard and Peter Jones of the Seminole Company denounced her as "temperamental" and "eccentric." They made it clear that they wanted nothing more to do with her.
When her show-business backers in New York withdrew their support, Coleman returned to Chicago to search for new sponsors. On her way home she stopped in Baltimore, where she delivered a lecture on her career at the Trinity A.M.E. Church and announced, for the first time, her intention to open a school for aviators. After renting an office and renewing her contacts at Chicago's Checkerboard Airdrome, she began recruiting students. One of the first who came to her was an African American named Robert P. Sachs, who worked as an advertising manager for the California-based Coast Tire and Rubber Company. Still lacking a plane of her own, a hangar, and money for aircraft maintenance, Coleman persuaded Sachs to let her promote his company's products through aerial advertising on the West Coast. The money she earned for this service would allow her to purchase her own plane, which she could then use for lessons.
Although Coleman eventually succeeded in buying an aircraft of her own, the only one she could afford was an ancient Curtiss JN-4, priced at $400. Days after receiving the plane, she was flying from Santa Monica, California to an exhibition in central Los Angeles in February of 1923, when it stalled at 300 feet, nose-dived, and smashed into the ground. She spent the next three months in the hospital with a broken leg, broken ribs, and several serious lacerations. Discouraged by the loss of her only plane, her lengthy hospitalization, and continuing managerial problems, Coleman spent the next 18 months in Chicago, recuperating with family and friends and struggling to secure a job with a flying circus.
After dozens of rejections, Coleman managed to line up a series of exhibition flights and some strong advance press notices in Texas. She made her first Texas flight on June 19, the anniversary of the day Texan blacks achieved their freedom. After the show, some 75 spectators, most of whom were women, boarded five small passenger planes for complimentary flights through the night sky over Houston. According to Rich, the city's leading black newspaper, the Houston Informer, described the event as "the first time colored public of the South ha[d] been given the opportunity to fly." Around the same time, Coleman was quoted as saying in an interview with the Houston Post-Dispatch that her greatest ambition was to "make Uncle Tom's cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school."
Although Coleman continued to perform in aerial exhibitions in Texas and throughout the United States, she became increasingly aware of the potential power lecture platforms held as a means of inspiring other young, black Americans to pursue careers in aviation. She spent the last year of her life speaking at schools, theaters, and churches around the country, accompanying each lecture with evocative film clips of her aerial displays. Delivering lectures proved more cost-effective than appearing in air shows, but the money she collected from her audiences fell far short of what she needed to buy a new plane and establish her school.
At the suggestion of a friend, Colman opened a beauty shop in Orlando, Florida, to help raise funds. Finally, she turned to another friend, chewing-gum heir Edwin M. Beeman, to help her make the final payment on an old Army surplus plane from the First World War. Beeman arranged to have the plane — the only aircraft Coleman could afford — flown from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, so that she could take part in a May Day celebration sponsored by the city's Negro Welfare League.
The day before the Jacksonville event, Coleman, who was billed as the show's star attraction, and her mechanic, William D. Wills, took the old airplane out for a practice run. Wills was in the front cockpit, piloting the plane, while Coleman sat in the rear, her seatbelt unfastened so she could peer over the cockpit to study the contours of the field below. The highlight of her performance the next day was to be a spectacular parachute jump from a speeding plane at 2,500 feet.
The plane had only been in the air for about ten minutes and was cruising smoothly at 80 miles per hour when it suddenly accelerated, went into a tail-spin, and flipped upside down. Coleman was hurled out of the plane and plunged more than 500 feet to her death. Wills tried but failed to regain control of the aircraft and died instantly when it hit the ground. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it, causing the plane to spin out of control. Experts noted at the time that gears in more modern planes had a protective coating — an accident like this need not have happened.
On May 2, 1926, thousands of mourners — among them hundreds of schoolchildren who had heard Coleman lecture on the glories of aviation — attended a memorial service in Jacksonville. Three days later her remains arrived in Chicago, where thousands more attended a funeral at the city's Pilgrim Baptist Church. Several years after her death, black aviators inspired by her pioneering achievements formed a network of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs. A new organization known as the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, open to women pilots of all races, was founded in 1977 — some 50 years after her death — by a group of black women pilots from the Chicago area. Every April, on the anniversary of Coleman's death, the Bessie Coleman Aviators, together with pilots from the Chicago American Pilots Association and the Negro Airmen International, fly low over Lincoln Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island to drop flowers on her grave. As an additional tribute to the life and courage of the world's first black woman pilot, in 1990, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O'Hare Airport "Bessie Coleman Drive." In 1992 he proclaimed May 2nd "Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago." Shortly thereafter, Coleman received national recognition when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating her extraordinary life and accomplishments.
—Caroline B. D. Smith