The air is the only place free from prejudice.
For Bessie Coleman, the sky had no limits. Not just the first female pilot of African-American descent, but the first ever African-American to hold an international pilot’s license. The aviatrix was an incredible risk-taker – a fearless woman who strove to follow her passion, to realise her potential and to fight for her right to equality. By the time of her death at only 34, she’d become one of the most famous black women on Earth and paved the way for generations of women to come.
If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires there shall be no regrets.
Bessie was born in Texas in 1892. The Texas of her time was plagued with racial intolerance. African-Americans weren’t allowed to vote, suffered strict segregation, and were commonly beaten or lynched all across the Southern States.
In these painful early days, her mother Susan opened Bessie’s eyes to her own potential. The daughter of slaves, Susan was unable to read or write herself, but she was determined that her children would have an education and a better start in life than she’d had.
When she started school at the age of six, Bessie proved herself to be academically gifted, particularly at maths. Later she would manage to save enough money from cotton-picking to complete one term at university, but without the funds to sustain her studies, she had little choice but to head home to Texas. Jobs were few and far between for black women in the hostile environment of the South, so at 23 Bessie followed her brothers to the more black-friendly city of Chicago.
But in truth, Chicago didn’t present many more opportunities for her. She began working in a barber shop as a manicurist but she remained desperate, in her own words, “to amount to something.”
Her brothers would tell her stories of seeing terrifying, breath-taking aviation exploits during World War I and Bessie became fascinated by aviation. Her brothers talked of the white French women who could fly, had careers — women who’d made something of themselves. In fact, it was incredibly rare for any woman at that time to have a pilot’s license but still, it bothered Bessie. She began searching for someone to teach her to fly, but all the American flying academies refused her entry on the grounds of her race and gender.
I refused to take no for an answer.
It was in Chicago that Bessie met Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender (often called ‘America’s first black newspaper’) and civil rights activist. Robert persuaded her that the French flying academies were less racist and sexist than their American counterparts.
So with her savings, she learned French and after winning the financial support of Abbott and wealthy banker Jesse Binga in 1920, Bessie travelled to France, her mind set on achieving her goal.
In just seven months, she had completed a ten-month aviation course at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, one of the most prestigious flying academies in the world. In June 1921, she was awarded an international aviation licence.
Not only did Bessie Coleman become the first American of any race or gender to earn this licence from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, she also became the first black woman in the world to own an international pilot’s licence. Bessie returned to America three months later to a media storm, and although she would venture back to France to hone her aviation skills even more, it was in America that she’d focus her talents as an exhibition-flyer.
“Queen Bess” was a big hit. Her events were well-attended and the press loved her. In the air, Bessie took the same risks she took in life. She wowed the crowds with seemingly impossible manoeuvres, breaking a leg and five ribs on one occasion.
I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.
Bessie was hired for engagement after engagement, and not just to fly: people wanted to hear her speak. Although she had no training in public speaking, she saw the microphone as an opportunity to give a voice to others. She used her public platform to decry prejudice, and to encourage black men and women to rise up to achieve their potential. She refused to speak at segregated events, and with speaking engagements flooding in, she began to save her money to achieve her next dream: to open an aviation school in America, where black men and women could learn to fly side-by-side.
Tragically, she didn’t live to see this dream realised. Bessie died on 30 April, 1926 in the passenger seat of her new plane, a Curtiss JN-4, while scoping out the terrain for a parachute jump the next day. She was just 34 years old.
Yet her short but spectacular life inspired the world and shortly after her death The Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded to teach African-Americans how to fly. In 1977, a group of African-American women founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, a club devoted exclusively to teaching women aviation. Bessie’s determination to champion women and people of colour in the aviation industry has received global recognition. She leaves a considerable legacy.
References include bessiecoleman.com, Biography and Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator by Doris Rich.
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