Here is a gal who was so fearless that in a time when women, African-Americans, and Native Americans were banned from learning how to fly – she did. In her own words, she “refused to accept ‘no’ for an answer” With nail-biting barnstorming aerial stunt performances, this gal kept you on the edge of your seat. An inspiration to many, including astronauts, this gal used the airplane to promote equal rights and civil rights. Your Gal, Bessie Coleman.
Click here for the full podcast episode in an audio player on your computer/device. Or the You Tube link below.
Bessie Coleman was born in 1893 in Atlanta, Texas. Her mother was African-American and her father was part African-American and part Native American. When Bessie was two-years old her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas. Her parents where sharecroppers. Bessie and her siblings helped as much as they could so that the family could get by. They all helped pick cotton in the growing season between school and other work. Bessie completed all 8 grades of grade school and at age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University). She completed one term before her money ran out and she returned home.
When she was 23 she moved to Chicago to live with her older brothers. Bessie went to the E. Burnham School of Beauty Culture and got a job as a manicurist. Within a year she was known as the fastest and best manicurist in black Chicago. She worked at the White Sox Barber shop that was owned by the trainer of the Chicago’s American League baseball club.
When America entered World War 1 both of Bessie’s Brothers went to Europe as part of the Illinois all black 8th Army National Guard. When they came back the told her about how women had more opportunities in France including learning to fly.
Bessie had been reading about WW1 pilots and their missions in the newspapers and magazines. Her brother John teased her that she would never learn to fly and that was enough light a fire and prove him wrong.
She applied to American flying schools but was rejected because she was black and because she was a woman.
Learning to Fly
Bessie met Robert S. Abbot, editor and publisher of the Chicago Weekly Defender newspaper. She talked to him about her dream of being a pilot and the fact that schools rejected her on her race and gender but France wasn’t. On his advice, Bessie learned French and took a second job at a chili parlor to save money. Robert S. Abbot and a successful African-American banker Jessie Binga both helped back her trip. She sailed to France’s most famous flight school on November 20, 1920.
She trained for 7 months learning tail spins, banking and looping the loop. It was not easy and it was extremely dangerous. On June 15, 1921 Bessie became the first woman of African-American and Native American decent to earn an aviation pilot’s license from the Frederation Aeronautique Internationale.
With access to planes and amazing teachers, Bessie stayed in Paris and took 2 more months of lessons to hone her skills. When she returned home she was a media sensation in African American newspapers. She didn’t get much press in the mainstream white-owned papers but she was in the Aerial Age Weekly the paper said, “Miss Coleman, who is having a special Nieuport scout plane built for her in France, said yesterday that she intended to make flights in this country as an inspiration for people of her race to take up aviation.”
She made a deal with Los Angeles company Coast Tire & Rubber to distribute advertising from the air in exchange to get her very own plane. Unfortunately in 1923, shortly after getting her plane the engine stalled moments after take off at an airshow of 10,000 people. She nose dived from 300 feet but survived with several broken bones.
Determined to come back to the air, she did need time to heal. Bessie spend 3 months in the hospital and then recovery time in the Los Angeles home of Mrs. S.E Jones. Still healing, she hosted lectures that showed film reels of her flying.
Her thoughts were fixed on the idea of a black flying school. She wanted to spread aviation fever and encourage African-American’s to fly to serve their country. She told her ideas of a flying school to anyone who would listen.
By September 1923 she was flying again. She did flying stunts and speaking engagement to raise money and awareness of the school, knowing it would take a big investor to make it a true reality.
Bessie, however was a role model and boosted black pride. She was getting more and more press as “Brave Bessie” in white and black press.
In the Spring in 1926 things were really looking up for Bessie. She got her a sponsorship from the Negro Welfare League for airshows and lectures. Bessie was on her way to a new plane of her own and having enough money to open her school.
She sent William D. Wills, her new acquired mechanic, publicity manager and co-pilot to pick up her new plane from Love Field in Dallas and fly it to Jacksonville. Major engine problems plagued the journey but the plane and Wills made it to Jacksonville.
For the show in Paxon Airfield, Bessie was going to parachute out of the plane so she and Wills were going to test the plane and Bessie was going to look for a good spot for her jump. She did not put on her seat belts so she could see over the cockpit sill.
Ten minutes into the fight disaster happened. The plane went into a nose-dive at 3,000 feet before flipping over. Bessie was ejected from the plane fell to her death. Wills who was wearing a seat belt in fell with the plane and died on impact. It was discovered later that a loose wrench jammed the controls of the plane.
Bessie died April 30, 1926 at the age of 34. She had two memorials services in Jacksonville, and was buried in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery. Her casket was draped with an American flag. Her pallbearers were 6, 8th infantry African-American veterans. Ida B Wells, a wonderful speaker and activist for equal rights, was the mistress of ceremonies. Her various memorials were attended by thousands.
She inspired many including performer Josephine Baker to get her pilots licence, Paul McCully, to fly and later become the National Governor of the OX-5 Pioneers, Mae Jemison to become an astronaut, and in 1929 Lt. William J Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles.
In the episode Kate & Phoebe also talk what they learned from Bessie, aviation at that time and how it’s possible that Bessie inspired Amelia Earhart. Listen Here.
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.
- #5 Ella Fitzgerald
- #6 Harriet Tubman
- #7 Jane Addams
- #8 Ada Lovelace
SUPPORT THIS PODCAST ON PATREON
Like what we do? Want more? On our Patreon page you can get access to more content and early releases.