Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman: Pilot Extraordinaire
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, to poor African American and Native American parents. She was one of thirteen children, and stayed with her mom and sisters in Texas after her father went to Oklahoma.
In 1915, Bess moved to Chicago with two of her brothers and went to beauty school, working as a manicurist in a local barber shop. She had read about aviation and seen films about pilots in newsreels, but her brother John was the real impetus for her becoming a pilot— he wouldn’t stop teasing her and telling her she couldn’t be one because she wasn’t as good as the French women who flew.
After no school in the US would accept her because of her race, Bess began saving money and taking French lessons. With help from a local newspaper proprietor and her own savings, Bess moved to France in 1920. She attended Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France and got her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.
She came back to the US in hopes of starting the first African American flight school, but couldn’t raise money without knowing fancy aeronautic techniques. Again, no flight school in the US would train her, so she went back to Europe in February 1922 to learn some freaking sweet flying tricks, then came back to the US.
Her first show was on September 3, 1922, in Garden City, New York. She became a minor celebrity, and toured around the country, encouraging African Americans and women to get their pilot’s license. Her first crash happened in 1923 due to a stalled engine. Coleman suffered multiple injuries and couldn’t go back to flying until 1925.
While in her native Texas and in other Southern states, Coleman often performed in front of segregated audiences, much to her chagrin. She exercised as much power as she could, nearly refusing to perform when one organizer attempted to have “white” and “coloured” entrance gates.
Coleman’s life was tragically cut short because of a crash in April 1926 while she was preparing for a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Her mechanic was flying the plane and lost control because a loose wrench got jammed in the engines. (I know, right? Stupid.)
After her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs began popping up around the country, and on Labor Day 1931, these clubs hosted the first all African American air show.