ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Ain’t No Black Woman Ever Gonna Fly

The Story of Brave Bessie — the First Black and Native American Woman Pilot

Image 1: Bessie Coleman (1892–1926) and her plane in 1922 Wikimedia Commons

The history of aviation has always been something poorly taught in many schools. Those students who paid attention have no doubt heard about the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who in 1903 were successful in flying the first manned aircraft.

Others may have also heard about Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart, both of whom would be the first man and woman to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 and 1932 respectively. But chances are good that most people reading this have not heard of Bessie Coleman — the first African-American woman and Native American to hold a pilot’s license.

Before she became known as “Queen Bessie” and “Brave Bessie,” Coleman would be born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas in a town near the Louisiana border. Her mother was an African-American woman while her father was biracial — he was an African-American man with Cherokee grandparents. Life was hard for the Coleman’s and for Bessie. As a young girl she would work and labor in the fields, picking cotton with the seasons, while attending a small segregated one-room country school where she excelled in mathematics.

She was an intellectually gifted child, and throughout her life she would be both rewarded for her talent and drive while simultaneously being denied opportunities because of her race and gender. It is this feature of her life, and her relentless pursuit of self-improvement in spite of the obstacles she faced, that is most remarkable about her.

When she was 12 she would win a scholarship to attend a Missionary Baptist Church School, and later, at 18, she would take what little savings she had and enroll at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, now Langston University, but would complete only a single term. Her money had run out.

After a series of odd jobs she would move to Chicago at the age of 23 in 1915 where she would work and live with some of her brothers. In Europe there was a war going on — the Great War or World War I as it would come to be called — and her brothers, veterans themselves who all managed to survive the war, would tell Bessie about how women and Black people in Europe and in France had more opportunities available to them.

They were treated differently and were better respected than in America— they even allowed women to fly planes and becomes aviators. However, when Bessie would confide to one of her brothers that she wanted to learn to fly and become a pilot, he would only laugh and respond with the bitter and hurtful comment that, “Ain’t no black woman ever going to fly” (Bessie Coleman — The First Black Woman to Fly: History Blog UK).

Image 2: Harriet Quimby (1875–1912) in 1911. The first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, and first woman to fly across the English Channel.Public domain

At first he was right. Bessie took a second job as a restaurant manager for a chili parlor to save some money for flying lessons, but unfortunately she was declined and turned away by the numerous pilots she had written to asking for flying lessons.

No one was willing to train a woman — let alone a colored woman — at that time in America, and while there were other female aviators such as Harriet Quimby (who in 1911 would become the first American female to earn a pilot’s license) and Matilde Moisant (the second woman to earn a pilot’s license in America) unlike Bessie they were all White.

They also had connections. Quimby had been a journalist who attended aerial demonstrations for a series of articles she would write. At one event she would meet Alfred Moisant, who owned and operated the Moisant Aviation School in Long Island, New York along with his other brothers who flew. Matilde Moisant was Alfred’s little sister.

Image 3: Robert S. Abbot (1868–1940) was a lawyer and newspaper publisher who founded The Chicago Defender Public domain

Bessie didn’t have any of these connections, but she did have a friend — someone she had written to who would help her on her way.

Robert S. Abbot, a prominent African-American lawyer and newspaper publisher who in 1905 had founded The Chicago Defender (which would grow to have the highest circulation of any Black owned newspaper in America) had received a letter from Bessie and was intrigued by her story.

He would publish her story in his newspaper which would be read by thousands of people, catching the eye of Jesse Binga, another prominent Black Chicagoan, who would found the first privately owned African-American bank in Chicago. Between his financial sponsorship — and money from the Defender — Bessie was on her way, but not before Abbot would give her some sobering advice. If she wanted to get her pilot’s license her best bet would be to apply to aviation schools in France.

Image 4: Coleman’s 1921 pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Wikimedia Commons

“Brave Bessie” would enroll at a French language course at the Berlitz Language School in Chicago, and then later, on November 20th, 1920, she would travel to Le Crotoy, France to attend the Caudron Brothers aviation school. The training was difficult and dangerous — during one class in early 1921 one of Bessie’s classmates was killed while flying.

Undaunted, she persisted, showing an aptitude for aerial loop-the-loops and other maneuvers. On June 15th, 1921 she would graduate, becoming the first Black woman and first Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license, and the first Black person and first Native American to earn an international aviation license.

Image 5: Bessie Coleman in 1923 with monogrammed cap.

She had achieved her dream. She was now a pilot, an aviator, and in the gendered language of her day, an “aviatrix” or a female aviator. Not content to simply earn her license, Bessie would remain in France an additional two months, honing her flying skills with additional lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris.

She would return to America in late 1921 to much fanfare, with her aviation skills, photogenic smile, and extroverted personality helping her to become a media sensation. Still, with commercial air flight decades away, pilots had very few financial prospects or ways to generate cash as civilian aviators. There was one way though — barnstorming.

Image 6: A barnstorming performance by Locklear’s Flying Circus over Atlantic City, NJ in 1919. Note the rope ladder hanging from the airplane.

To modern sensibilities barnstorming was completely reckless, highly dangerous, and quite frankly crazy — however, it served an important place in aviation history and in the life of Bessie Coleman. In the early days of civilian aviation, aviators would perform stunts in airshows before paying audiences and sometimes offer rides as well.

They would use a field near a farmer’s barn as a makeshift runway and would buzz low over the towns nearby, dropping flyers and attracting customers — hence the word “barnstorming.” Barnstormers performed such stunts as loop-the-loops and barrel rolls, but they would even climb out onto the wing of their plane to walk across it, or hang from a rope ladder in mid-flight and climb down to another airplane flown by a different pilot.

Image 7: Anthony Fokker (1890–1939) in 1912, Dutch aviation pioneer, aviation entrepreneur, aircraft designer and manufacturer.

Needless to say many pilots who performed such stunts crashed their planes, or worse, fell out of them to plummet to their deaths. Coleman knew that barnstorming was one of the only ways to make a living with her skills and she would seek out instructors in Chicago to help her refine and practice the dangerous stunts. However, again unable to find suitable instructors, she returned to Europe in 1922.

She would spend the next few months completing an advanced aviation course in France before traveling to the Netherlands to meet famed aviation pioneer and aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, who had invented many of the airplanes flown during World War I. She would go on to visit the Fokker Corporation manufacturing plant in Germany and would complete additional training there from one of the company’s chief pilots.

In September 1922 she returned to America and performed at her first airshow in Long Island, NY at an event to honor the veterans of the 369th Infantry Regiment — an all-black unit of soldiers who had fought in World War I. Sponsored by her friend and newspaper publisher from Chicago, Robert Abbot, and advertised in his newspaper The Chicago Defender, the show would be a success.

Six weeks later, in Chicago, she would perform again in an airshow honoring the 370th Infantry Regiment — an all-black unit commanded by Black officers — and would thrill and captivate the crowd by performing figure-eights, loops, and diving so low to the ground she nearly touched it with the wheels of her plane before climbing into the skies again. She was a hit.

Image 8: “Queen Bessie” dressed in her flight suit in 1922.

She would continue flying in aerial demonstration shows, gaining popularity and money, but commercial success had never been her primary motivation. “Queen Bessie” wanted to combat racism and show that African-Americans and women could fly, and ultimately open an aviation school to train a new generation of African-American pilots. She was so committed to this and her craft that while flying in Los Angels in 1923 she would crash her plane after the engine stalled mid-flight while performing a difficult stunt. She survived the crash to fly again, but would break her leg and fracture three ribs.

Throughout her career over the following years she would refuse to perform at segregated events that barred African-American audiences from attending, despite the financial loss that it may bring. While recovering from her injuries, she would accept speaking invitations and would give lectures on aeronautics and give theoretical flying lessons to people, but she would always decline to speak at segregated events and even avoided engagements that had separate entryways for White and Black spectators.

Image 9: Thousands of surplus Curtis JN-4 or “Jenny” airplanes from WWI were sold after the war, opening the way for civilian aviation.

In April 1926 Bessie was in Florida, having traveled there to perform in a movie about a rags to riches character, but quickly refused to participate after realizing that the film would perpetuate negative racial stereotypes of African-Americans. She was not going to let herself be used like that, even though the money could have helped her open her own flying school. Instead she decided to purchase a new plane, a Curtiss JN-4 or a “Jenny” as it was popularly known to aviators.

During the Great War thousands of Jennies had been produced to train pilots and fight in the early air wars over Europe, but with the end of the conflict there had been a glut of surplus planes that needed to be sold. Many of these made their way to America at bargain prices — sometimes for as little as $50 dollars. The condition of the planes varied from heavily used and poorly maintained to brand new out of the crate; these were the wild and unregulated days of aviation in America — when anyone could buy a plane and fly it whenever, wherever, and however they wanted.

Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24 year old William D. Wills, flew the recently purchased plane from Dallas, Texas to Jacksonville, Florida where Bessie was scheduled to fly it in an air show, but while in route to Florida the plane had to make three forced landings because it had been so badly maintained by the previous owner.

When her friends and family learned of this they implored Bessie not to fly the plane, but she refused. On April 30th, 1926, the day before her scheduled airshow, Bessie and Wills took off in the plane with Wills piloting it. Bessie had planned to do a parachute jump from the plane the next day and wanted to survey the terrain from the passenger seat to determine the best place for her to make the parachute jump.

About ten minutes into their flight the plane suddenly pitched forward violently and went into a spin 3,000 feet above the ground. Bessie would be thrown from her seat (airplanes at this time did not have safety harnesses or seat belts) and would plummet to the ground below, dying immediately upon impact.

Her mechanic was unable to regain control of the airplane and it would crash into the ground, killing him instantly, before igniting and bursting into flames. An examination of the badly burned wreckage would later discover that a wrench that had been used to service the engine had come loose and jammed the engine, causing the plane to go into a tailspin.

Bessie had only been 34 years old. Her death was not widely circulated in the historically White-owned newspapers, but for her thousands of African-American fans and her native Chicagoans, news of her death came hard. Her body would lay in state for a week, with funeral services first held in Florida, and then later in Chicago before a crowd of 10,000 mourners in a ceremony led by famed civil rights activist, leader, and educator Ida B. Wells who had been one of the original founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP.

“Queen Bessie” never got to establish her flying school for African-American and women pilots, but her popularity, bravado, aerial skill, and commitment to racial equality showed audiences that flying is for everyone. She would inspire future generations of aviators and astronauts with the simple truth that she lived every day: that the skies do not belong to only one race of people. They belong to everyone.

Image 10: “Brave Bessie” striking a pose in her flight suit. She wast he first African-American woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot’s license.

Images and Works Cited

Image 1: By Unknown author — www.ctie.monash.edu.au, Public Domain,1922, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23091723

Image 2: By George Grantham Bain Collection — Library of Congress Catalog: https://lccn.loc.gov/2001704111Image download: http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3a10000/3a17000/3a17300/3a17324v.jpgOriginal url: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001704111/, Public Domain, 1911, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66676656

Image 3: By Unknown — https://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/defender.html, Public Domain, circa 1920, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2497600

Image 4: By Fédération Aéronautique Internationale — Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Neg. ID #: 99–15416 [1], Public Domain, 1921 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3953203

Image 5: By Unknown. Timeline.com. March 19, 2018.Original source: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images, Public Domain, 1923 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82504527

Image 6: By Western Newspaper — Image 6 of New-York tribune New York N.Y. June 1, 1919, Public Domain,1919, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79399785

Image 7: By Fritz Heuschkel — This image is available from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain,1916 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53464

Image 8: By Black Wings [2] — Smithsonian Institution, Neg. ID #: 99–15415.[1], Public Domain, 1922, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3956201

Image 9: By San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives — Source, Public Domain, circa 1918, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17867040

Image 10: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Bessie Coleman, aviatrix.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Public Domain, 1925, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-4d79-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Bessie Coleman — The First Black Woman to Fly: History Blog UK.” The Ministry Of History History Blog UK Europe, 18 June 2020, www.theministryofhistory.co.uk/historical-biographies/bessie-coleman.

“Bessie Coleman.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 June 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Coleman.

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Lyndon Moore

Lyndon Moore

is a military veteran, nurse, martial artist, writer, and world traveler. He has been published in the O-Dark-Thirty Review, a literary journal for veterans.