Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female aviator, was bom in Atlanta, Texas, where she grew up promising to make something of her¬ self. The family entertain¬ er, accountant and intel¬ lect, Bessie completed her education in a one room schoolhouse that closed during every cot¬ ton-picking season.
She worked as a laundress to earn enough money to move to Langston, Okla¬ homa to attend the Colored Agricultural & Normal University. After one semester in remedial courses, her funds had run out. She returned to her mother in Waxahachie, Texas.
In 1915, Bessie moved to Chicago to live with her older brother. Employed as a man¬ icurist on Chicago’s State Street, Bessie met all the notorious figures in crime, night¬ clubs, gambling, and alcohol. She watched them profit as Prohibition transformed Chicago into a city full of danger and illegal pleasures.
One day, one of her brothers aimed an insult at African-American women that was meant particularly for Bessie. While talking about the French women pilots he’d served with, John Coleman said “You…women ain’t never goin’ to fly. Not like those women I saw in France.” Without knowing it, he gave Bessie just the thing she needed to hear. “That’s it,” she responded. “You just called it for me.”
Unable to train for a license anywhere in the United States, Bessie went to her friend Robert Abbott (see no. 35), publisher of The Chicago Defender, and enlisted his help, among others, to secure passage to Europe and tuition to the finest school in France, Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron.
Bessie returned to the United States a celebrity in 1921. Determined to attract other African- Americans to aviation, she began lecturing at schools and churches, and started giving demonstra¬ tions of her extreme skill, sometimes pulling a plane out of a nosedive mere feet from the ground. She was daring, dramatic, and considered one of the most beautiful women of the age.
Bessie was always trying to excel. Deciding to open up an aviation school, she saved up for a plane and traveled around, offering flights, performing feats and giving lectures until she could purchase it.
On April 30 she flew with a novice pilot who was helping her scout out the air field she would parachute into at the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League’s annual Field Day. Bessie didn’t bother to buckle her seat belt, as she would have to lean out of the little Curtiss JN4 to see where she wanted to plan her landing the next day.
Surprisingly, with pilot William Wills at the controls, the plane sped from 80 to 110 miles an hour, fell into a nosedive, then went into a tailspin at 1,000 feet, flipping at 500 feet, and dropping Bessie Coleman to her death. The cause was later found to be a wrench that had lodged in the control gears.
Rediscovered by contemporary aviators, Coleman is now considered an aviation pio¬ neer, and each year, on the anniversary of her death, historian Rufus A. Hunt flies over her grave, dropping flowers from his plane. In addition, the US Post Office has finally honored Coleman and her achieve¬ ments with a stamp.