Elizabeth (Bessie) Coleman-First Black Female Aviator
Performance of her Mission (2/2)
Bessie Coleman had grown up wanting to be somebody and wanting to be able to reach back and help others in her community. After hearing stories of French female pilots coming out of World War I stories, she decided that was for her. She was aware that when she succeeded she would be a role model for other Black women. She laid out her plan and worked on it step by step. She figured how much money she would need to fund the beginning steps and then took jobs to realize that goal. The next step was to find someone to teach her to fly and for that she had to go to France and to do that she would have to learn to speak French.. With those goals met, she realized she needed to learn all she could about the airplane itself and also the business end, for her own protection. She was preparing herself for performance of her mission.
Her first appearance in an American airshow was in 1922 which was an event to honor an all-Black unit of World War I. Her billing in the show called her “the world’s greatest woman flyer”, even though she was featured with other flyers. In the early 1920’s , it was rare to find a female pilot and impossible to find a Black female pilot. Weeks after the first show, she returned for a demonstration of daredevil stunts like loops, figure eights and near ground dips. Her dream was beginning to come to life and she began to see that there were no limits for her as she was performing in air shows all over the country.
With her increasing rock star status, Ms. Bessie was offered a feature movie role, she agreed thinking that the added exposure would bring more money in order to fund her dream of aviation schools everywhere. But when the opening scene had her in ragged clothes and a backpack, she decided against going on with the movie role and broke her contract.. She had no intention of helping white folks to continue the stereotyping of Black people as poor and pitiful This move cost her dearly not only in loss of money but also it also distanced her from some of the most powerful men in the Black entertainment world. For those people who do what they know to be the right thing, there is a price to be paid.
She had to return to Chicago to try to get new backers and income for her dream, so she rented an office and started to recruit students even though she still did not have a plane of her own. She sat down to chart out her options and came up with a plan to promote certain businesses by way of aerial advertising. From this business decision, she was able to buy her own plane although it was an old plane. This plane would be the one with which she could give lessons and help to make her vision a reality. In 1923, while involved in a flying exhibition, she crashed and had to spend eighteen months recuperating from multiple broken bones. Never one to waste any time, while healing, she continued to line up flying jobs after recovering. Although she faced many rejections, she was finally able to put in place a series of exhibition flights. Her first show after she had recovered was in Texas. It was such a success that dozens of people, mostly women, boarded small passenger planes for complimentary flights that were offered. A leading black newspaper said the event was “the first time colored public of the south had been given the opportunity to fly”
It was at this time that Bessie began to shift her thinking. She was no longer thinking of herself but how she could help to inspire young Black people to pursue careers in the growing field of aviation. She realized that she had the name recognition and achievements to draw crowds in speaking engagements. She spoke wherever she could- in churches, schools, theaters along with showing some films of her flying skills. Bessie began to see that this idea was better for raising money to fund her mission. But she wasn’t raising enough money as quickly as she wanted to so she decided to diversify buy a beauty shop in Florida. Along with that effort she again called on her rich
friends and was able to buy an old war plane . She was scheduled to appear in the festivities for the May Day parade there, so she and her mechanic decided to take a practice run. Ms. Coleman was sitting in the back seat, seat belt off, leaning out of the plane to study the contour of the land for the show. It was April 30, 1926 when there was a mechanical failure with the plane, it flipped over and Ms. Coleman was thrown out at more than 500 feet. Her mechanic who tried to get control of the plane was also killed when the plane crashed.
Thousands of people showed up for a memorial service in Florida on May 2, 1926 The funeral service held in Chicago, which was presided over by Ida B. Wells, a well-known civil rights activist, reporter, newspaper owner and suffrage supporter, drew thousands of friends and admirers. Seven years after her death, Black aviators who were inspired by her story formed a network of Aero Clubs named for her. In 1977, a group of Black female pilots from the Chicago area formed an organization called the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club and each year on the anniversary of her death they get together, fly low over her grave and drop flowers on it.
As a tribute to her life, determination concern for lifting others, she has had a street named for her, her own day in Chicago and a postal stamp with her likeness. The resolution by the Chicago City council calling for the stamp noted that “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude and her determination to succeed”. What Bessie Coleman would be most proud of is the number of Black pilots, male and female that we have today and what would be even harder for her to imagine ? – Black female astronauts!
Ms. Coleman was quoted as saying, “ I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the race needed to be represented , so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and encourage flying among men and women of our race.” Don’t compromise your dreams, look within to find your mission and turn that from a “ME” philosophy, to a “ME/WE” philosophy., a move that will be of benefit not only to yourself but also to those who share the Cosmos with you.