Flying High with Bessie Coleman
By Sara Thompson
Special to the Enterprise
Bessie Coleman was born in January 1892 in Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children in her family and was of African American and Cherokee descent. At the age of six she began attending a one-room school where she enjoyed reading and excelled at math. She would walk around four miles round trip to her school each day and continued for the duration of her elementary education. At the age of twelve she was accepted to the Missionary Baptist Church School on a scholarship. After graduation, Coleman used all of her savings to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, her funds ran out after one term and she returned home. At the age of 23, she moved to Chicago with her brothers and worked odd jobs supporting herself.
While working in Chicago, around 1915, she heard stories about ace pilots during World War I. Inspired, she began saving her money to become a pilot. She applied to dozens of flight schools in the country but was refused by all of them due to her sex and ethnicity. A friend of Coleman, Robert Abbot, suggested she apply to schools in Europe. She took classes to learn French and applied to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France where she was accepted. Through a sponsorship, support from close friends, and her own savings she was able to travel to France in 1920 to attend aviation school.
Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane and in June 1921 became the first African American woman and American Native American to earn an aviation license. She continued taking advanced lessons and honing her skills and became a stunt and airshow pilot. Her first appearance in the U.S. was September 1922 at Curtiss Field in New York. During her shows she primarily flew a Curtiss JN-4 biplane and performed stunts such as loops, figure eights, and the crowd pleasing near-ground dips.
Coleman became known as one of the most daring airshow pilots and tried doing more and more difficult stunts. Even after breaking a leg and some ribs in a crash in 1923, she continued flying and stunting after she healed. Between shows, Coleman would speak to audiences combating racism and promoting aviation for African Americans. True to her values, she would refuse to participate in events that refused minority attendance and turned down a film role due to derogatory portrayals of African Americans.
In 1926, Coleman purchased a used Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas. Due to poor maintenance several test flights had been unsuccessful and required emergency landings. Despite her friends and family urging her to use a different plane, she tried one more test flight to survey an area for a stunt and parachute jump. With her on her flight was her mechanic and friend William Wills. During the flight, the plane unexpectedly stalled and went into a diving spin. Sadly, both Coleman and Wills perished in the crash caused by the poor maintenance and condition of the plane.
Bessie Coleman continues to be a symbol of perseverance and equality. Several schools, air buildings, and aviation clubs have been named in her honor. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001 and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.
Explorit's coming events:
• Our exhibit “Explorit Rocks!” is open to the public on Fridays from 1-4pm, Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-2pm. Additional hours, Monday, January 16 from 10am-2pm. Admission is $5 per person. Explorit Members, ASTC, and those age 2 and under free.
• A Membership to Explorit grants the recipient free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, camps and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits to visit other museums throughout the world. To purchase or for more information visit https://www.explorit.org/membership or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.