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Early African American Aviators

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Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman stands with a Curtiss JN-4, circa 1924. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number WEB11673-2010.


Bessie Coleman was born to George and Susan Coleman on 26 January 1892. Coleman and her several brothers and sisters first lived in Atlanta, Texas before moving to the mostly African American section of Waxahachie, Texas two years later.

By 1910, after caring for her younger siblings and toiling in the cotton fields, Coleman had saved enough money to move to Oklahoma and enroll in Langston Industrial College in Langston, Oklahoma. This college for African Americans had as its goal the education of men and women so that they could excel in jobs in farming, mechanics, and industry (Hart, 2005). It was at Langston College that Coleman first learned of Harriet Quimby, a white American woman who had earned a pilot's license. However, in 1911 Coleman had to drop out of school due to a lack of money.

Unwilling to remain in Waxahachie, Coleman was encouraged by her brother Walter to move to Chicago to join him and John. She was able to move to Chicago in 1915 after working as a maid to earn enough money to do so. It was while working as a maid in 1912 that Coleman came across a newspaper article that told of Harriet Quimby's death in a plane crash in Massachusetts. She had not thought about Quimby since she left Langston College, but the news sparked Coleman's interest in the idea of flying a plane.

Soon after making her way north to Chicago, Coleman landed a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop on Chicago's south side. It was at this barber shop that she met Robert S. Abbott in 1920. Abbott was the publisher of the Chicago Defender, one of the leading African American-owned newspapers in America. Coleman soon confided in him about her interest in flying. Once convinced that this young woman was serious, Abbott suggested that she learn French and travel to France to learn to fly. He knew that no flight school in the United States would accept her because of her race and gender, and that the French were more open-minded than Americans in matters of racial and gender equality.

With Abbott's help, and her personal savings, Coleman took the train to New York City. On 20 November 1920 she boarded the SS Imparator and sailed for France. In December 1920, Coleman began taking flying lessons at the Ecole d'Aviation des Frères Caudron at Le Crotoy, in northwestern France near the English Channel. She flew a French Nieuport 80 biplane, which had become popular during World War I. Between December 1920 and June 1921 she worked diligently, both on her French and her flying. By June she had finished her training and was ready to apply for a pilot's license. She passed her tests on the first try. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a nongovernmental organization that oversees air sports worldwide, issued her pilot's license on 15 June 1921.

Coleman sent a letter to Robert Abbott informing him of her accomplishment. She had every reason to feel proud: At the age of 29 she had become the first African American woman in the world to earn a pilot's license. Coleman then returned to Paris from Le Crotoy to take more flying lessons at nearby Le Bourget Field. Over the next few months she continued her flying lessons while learning more about Paris. Unlike in Chicago, she was able to move freely about the city with no restrictions due to her race.

In September 1921 she left Cherbourg, France on the SS Manchurian. She was a different person than the young woman who had arrived in France ten months earlier. With her pilot's license in hand, she set her sights on New York City, where she was greeted by crowds of reporters–both black and white–when the Manchurian docked in late September. The reporters came from the New York Tribune, the Aerial Age Weekly, the Air Service News, and other newspapers. Robert Abbott had been right: An African American woman pilot was big news. Front page stories appeared in the Chicago Defender and in other African American-owned newspapers across the country.

The next year, Coleman set out on a barnstorming tour that would spread the aviation gospel while at the same time allowing her to raise funds to start her own flying school. Coleman left wintry Chicago in January 1923 for California. She first headed to Oakland to set up a deal with Coast Tire and Rubber Company. Under the terms of the deal she would represent Coast Tire at public events. She would also put the company logo on the planes she flew. Several white pilots had similar deals, but Coleman was the first African American pilot to make such an agreement with a major corporation. Coleman then headed to Los Angeles, where she used money from her Coast Tire deal to purchase a used Curtiss JN-4 for $400. Coleman proceeded to set up an exhibition at Rogers Field in Los Angeles, but her backers pulled out at the last minute and Coast Tire refused to fill the void. Coleman scrambled to set up another exhibition, which she was able to perform on 4 February 1923 at Palomar Park in Los Angeles. Thousands gathered to see her as the sole attraction, but after taking off from nearby Santa Monica where her plane had been parked, Coleman had her first crash when the Jenny's motor stalled. Luckily, she was flying the Jenny at only 300 feet at the time, and she emerged from the crash with a broken leg and several fractured ribs.

Licking her wounds, Coleman returned to Chicago to heal. By 1925 she was ready to travel once again. She headed back home to Texas and in Houston on 9 May 1925 she gave her first lecture on flying, accompanied by films of her flights. Five weeks later, Coleman performed in a borrowed plane at the Houston Juneteenth air show, where she enthralled both the stands full of white spectators and the African American viewers forced to stand on a dirt surface.

With her successful return to Texas behind her, Coleman headed on to Florida still intent on raising funds for a school. It was in Jacksonville, Florida on 30 April 1926 that Coleman died in another crash while preparing for an air show in that city. A memorial service was held in Jacksonville, and her body was then sent by train to Chicago. For the funeral service at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church in May 1926, nearly fifteen hundred family members, friends, and fans crowded the pews. Outside, thousands more, including William J. Powell, milled about, unable to get in.

Bessie Coleman had arrived in Chicago in 1915 from Texas as an unknown cotton picker. She was honored eleven years later as a shining light the world over.

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