Few people today know that a black woman was “barnstorming” her way across America in the 1920s, but they need to. The story of Bessie Coleman is an inspirational one, and more people need to be telling it… and hearing it.
Everything IS Bigger in Texas
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas.1
The tenth of 13 children, Coleman had big dreams at an early age. One of the biggest probably being getting out of a house with a million siblings ASAP.
When she wasn’t at school, Bessie was helping her family with the cotton harvest and reading to her siblings. After she went as far as she could at her local school, Coleman enrolled at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, which she attended for one year until she ran out of money and had to return home to once again be part of her parent’s baker’s dozen.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Aller en France (Go to France)
In 1916, when Bessie Coleman was 24 years old, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her brother.
There, Coleman became a successful manicurist and chili parlor worker who hopefully worked at the latter before the former each day, because there’s nothing worse than ruining a fresh manicure with chili juice.
In Chicago, Coleman began hearing tales of World War I pilots who got to adventure off into the sky without a nail file or spicy pepper in sight. She knew up in the air was where she belonged.
With the money she had saved from working, Coleman tried to apply to an American flight school. Unfortunately, since she was a triple threat minority (African American, Native American [her father was part Cherokee], and female), Coleman was unable to attend. At the urging of her friend, Robert S. Abbott (the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender), Coleman decided to go to France to learn to fly where folks were more accepting.
They Believed Bessie Coleman Could Fly
Bessie Coleman excelled in her Parisian flight school and soon became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot’s license, as well as the first person of African-American and Native American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.2 Take that America.
Word spread quickly of Coleman’s achievements and, when she returned home, she was an immediate sensation. Even though Coleman was now a licensed pilot, there weren’t too many opportunities for employment, so Coleman decided to start a career in the lastest airborne craze: barnstorming.
Bessie Coleman: Taking the Barnstorm World by… Storm
Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s that involved skilled pilots doing tricks and stunts in the air. Kind of like Cirque du Soleil only way more dangerous and with less French clowns.
Once again Bessie Coleman found herself without a willing teacher in America, so she sailed back overseas with the goal of becoming one of the best barnstormers to ever storm a barn. After studying with some of the great European pilots, Coleman did indeed return a star. She became known as “Queen Bess” and wowed crowds of all colors with her high flying skills.
Flying High Over the Low Road
Bessie Coleman was called “the world’s greatest woman flyer” and as such caught the attention of many influential people. She was even offered a feature film role in a production called Shadow and Sunshine, which was to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. Coleman was flattered until she discovered that the role perpetuated African American stereotypes, something she fought her whole life against.
In the great paraphrased words of Real Housewife Kandi Burruss, she “flew above all the haters,” literally and figuratively.
Bessie Coleman: A Lasting Legacy
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Bessie Coleman, a woman who spent her days defying death on often unregulated aircraft, died on April 30th, 1926, while prepping for an airshow.
Ever the daredevil, Coleman took off on a plane she knew might not be safe with her mechanic and publicity agent, William D. Wills as her co-pilot. Coleman wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, because she wanted to test out a trick. When the plane unexpectedly went into a dive, Coleman was thrown out of the aircraft and died on impact. William Willis was unable to take control of the plane and died as well in the crash.
Bessie’s dream of starting a flight school for African American pilots was never realized, but her life is a lasting example of determination and following your dreams.
In 2017, on what would have been her 125th birthday, Bessie Coleman was honored with her very own Google Doodle. Every year on the day of her death, pilots fly over Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago to drop flowers on her grave.3 So if you ever want to pay your respects or just see it rain flowers, that’s where to be on April 30th.