Notable Black Women: Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman: 26 January 1892 – 30 April 1926

Today, 26 January, marks the birthdate of Bessie Coleman; it is her 125th “birth anniversary.” She was the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to hold a pilot license and an international pilot license. From the American Experience PBS site:

Bessie Coleman, the first African American female pilot, grew up in a cruel world of poverty and discrimination. The year after her birth in Atlanta, Texas, an African American man was tortured and then burned to death in nearby Paris for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl. The incident was not unusual; lynchings were endemic throughout the South. African Americans were essentially barred from voting by literacy tests. They couldn’t ride in railway cars with white people, or use a wide range of public facilities set aside for whites. When young Bessie first went to school at the age of six, it was to a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk from her home. Often there wasn’t paper to write on or pencils to write with.

When Coleman turned 23 she headed to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers, hoping to make something of herself. But the Windy City offered little more to an African American woman than did Texas. When Coleman decided she wanted to learn to fly, the double stigma of her race and gender meant that she would have to travel to France to realize her dreams.

It was soldiers returning from World War I with wild tales of flying exploits who first interested Coleman in aviation. She was also spurred on by her brother, who taunted her with claims that French women were superior to African American women because they could fly. In fact, very few American women of any race had pilot’s licenses in 1918. Those who did were predominantly white and wealthy. Every flying school that Coleman approached refused to admit her because she was both black and a woman. On the advice of Robert Abbott, the owner of the “Chicago Defender” and one of the first African American millionaires, Coleman decided to learn to fly in France.

She was apparently the tenth of thirteen children born to sharecroppers George Coleman, who was of the Choctaw tribe and African-American, and his wife Susan, who was African-American. She began attending school at the age of six in Waxahachie, Texas. She completed all eight grades at that school, but her routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted annually by the cotton harvest. Still, she was an avid reader and an outstanding math student, which probably led her to go after her dream of flying, no matter where it took her. Being an Aquarius didn’t hurt, either!

Sadly, her life and career were cut short in a tragic accident that occurred during a practice flight in Jacksonville, Florida:

Coleman took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida. Together with a young Texan mechanic called William Wills, Coleman was preparing for an air show that was to have taken place the following day. At 3,500 feet with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plummeted toward earth. Coleman, who wasn’t wearing a seat-belt, fell to her death.

About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to the first African American woman aviator, filing past her coffin in Chicago South’s Side. Her funeral was attended by several prominent African Americans and it was presided over by Ida B. Wells, an outspoken advocate of equal rights. But despite the massive turnout and the tributes paid to Coleman during the service, several black reporters believed that the scope of Coleman’s accomplishments had never truly been recognized during her lifetime. An editorial in the “Dallas Express” stated, “There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such.”

She is truly an inspiration to many, and her name deserves to be spoken with the same reverence and esteem that Amelia Earhart’s is – but, when it comes to giving women historical credit, that honour is always reserved for white women. Racism and segregation have only served to keep non-white women out of institutions of learning, and the revisionist white-washing of history has all but erased us from schoolbooks and other texts of education. We made our mark on this country and continue to do so. This is another woman who should be looked up to and emulated. She overcame far more than most women today can even imagine. I salute her today.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Herneith
    Jan 26, 2017 @ 12:13:22

    Excellent!

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