January 26 – Happy Birthday, Bessie Coleman

Posted on January 26, 2015

I don't know if you had met Bessie Coleman on the day of her birth, January 26, 1892, if you could've guessed that one day she would be the subject of biographies and a Wikipedia article.

She was born in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth child of African American sharecroppers. (They had three more kids after Bessie.) Sharecroppers are people who do not own land. They farm someone else's land and in return get some share of the crops they harvest (hence the term sharecropper). It isn't easy to go from being a sharecropper to being a landowner!

And, trust me, it wasn't easy to go from being a sharecroppers' daughter to being a woman accomplished enough to have an entry in Wikipedia!

Coleman went to a segregated one-room school for all eight available grades and was an outstanding student. Later, she was only able to afford one term at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. She moved to Chicago and got a job as a manicurist.

But she didn't want to be manicurist. She wanted to be a pilot. At that time, in the early 1900s, black people were not allowed in flight schools in the U.S. Also, women were not allowed in flight schools in the U.S. Two strikes against her...but they didn't stop her.

Coleman studied French, and then she traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. There she learned to fly a biplane with a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet.

Her determination and I-will-go-anywhere-to-meet-my-goal attitude paid off. In 1921 Coleman became, not only the first woman of African American descent to earn an international pilot's license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, she became the American – man or woman, black or white – to do so! She was also the first woman of African American descent to earn any sort of pilot's license.

Coleman wasn't content with just doing the minimum to get her license. After getting her license, she continued to polish her skills by taking lessons from a French ace pilot.

When Coleman returned to the U.S., late in 1921, she was a media sensation.

Still, there was no way to make money as a commercial pilot at the time. Pilots in the U.S. made their money by “barnstorming” and doing stunt flying in front of paid audiences. So Coleman needed to learn stunt flying.

Nobody in the U.S. was willing to teach her, so Coleman returned to France for more training. She even studied flight with some then-bigwigs in airplane design and aviation in the Netherlands and Germany. She returned to the U.S. well trained, ready to take on the world of exhibition flying.

Queen Bess was Coleman's “stage name,” and she was very popular with audiences. People wrote newspaper articles about her, and she was invited to important events. She was sometimes billed as the world's greatest woman flier. She did figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips for large and enthusiastic crowds of all races.

Stunt flying isn't all cheering crowds and success, of course. Once Coleman's plane stalled and crashed, and she broke a leg and three ribs. And unfortunately, she died in a plane crash when she was just 34 years old.

Still, Coleman's fame and successes did empower other women and other black people to feel that they, too, could learn to fly.

Also on this date:

Author Mary Mapes Dodge's birthday 

Plan ahead:

Check out my Pinterest pages on:
And here are my Pinterest boards for:

No comments:

Post a Comment