lizabeth (Bessie) Coleman-First Black Female Aviator
Preparing for her Life’s Mission (1/2)
From her sharecroppers shack, Bessie Coleman could look between the boards of their little home, up at the sky, and know she wanted to “be somebody” but she had no idea how to go about it. She would never have guessed at that time that she would influence generations of women, Black and white, around the world. But let’s stop there for a moment. What Bessie Coleman did not recognize was that she already was somebody and somebody with natural Selfhood Greatness. She was born Self- Great just like all of us are. Although she felt support from her family, she had been hearing the hate-filled lies from white folks about African Americans all her life.- that Black folks were no account and shiftless. And even though she knew what they said wasn’t true, she looked around and saw that Black folks were confined to certain roles in life-house keeper, laundress, or cook. Her desire was to stand out, to accomplish something bigger and better, and then help others but she just did not know how and where to start.
Being born in1892, in Atlanta, Texas, Elizabeth Coleman came into an already large family who occupied a one room cabin with a dirt floor. She entered a world full of cruel poverty and discrimination where lynchings and cross-burnings were a regular occurrence. She was the tenth child of what would eventually be thirteen children. Her parents were share croppers, children of Enslaved African Americans and both unable to read or write. Those big families were needed so there would be enough help on the farm. Share cropping was a system devised by whites to continue to control and take advantage of the newly freed slaves. After the Civil War when the plantations were broken up into smaller plots of land the newly freed fell back on what they knew best and that was plantation work. There were a number of reasons for this choice as is discussed by Joseph A. Bailey, II, MD. in his book, Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery. One reason was so they could have control over their own lives, their own work and for bodily safety. Another reason was that Black women would be free of the sexual abuse by the white man and be able to focus on a family of her own. A third reason was that they knew farm work best. But, of course, the deal was rigged. The whites were in control of everything the newly freed needed with unreasonably high prices for goods, along with .outrageously high interest rates on money borrowed to get started. Contracts were written in pencil and were changed by White folks at will so as to give them the advantage and Black folks the disadvantage and besides, the sharecroppers could not read or write. The system was built to make for another type of slavery and it was the setting into which Ms. Bessie Coleman came and it strengthened her resolve to learn to read and get as much education as she could.
Soon after her birth, Ms. Coleman’s father thought he could improve their lives by moving the family to Waxahachie, Texas which was a cotton town.. He was able to purchase a small piece of land in the Black section of town and build a three room house. Like many children, Ms. Coleman helped her Mother around the house, in the garden and kept an eye on her brothers and sisters. She started school at the age of six and was an excellent student, loving to read and finding that she excelled in mathematics. Getting good grades was a difficult thing to do because the school year was always broken up by the kids needing to be on the farm especially at harvest time for cotton when picking needed to be done. When Ms. Coleman was nine years old her father left the family. Since he was three quarters Native American, he thought that he and the family might do better in Oklahoma which was called “Indian Territory” at the time He had hoped that with his Indian blood he and the family would enjoy full civil rights. But his wife did not agree and stayed behind with the children, taking in laundry and picking cotton to try to make ends meet. Bessie was able to finish the eighth grade at the top of her class and remained eager to learn more but, the eighth grade was as far as her all-black, one room school went as white people felt that was all the education they needed.. Bessie Coleman realized that if she wanted more education, she would need to pay for it so she found a job as a laundress. Saving some money and giving some to her mother, she was finally able to enroll in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University of Langston, Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma at Langston is still going strong today as a historically Black university. Unfortunately, Bessie ran out of money after only her first term at the university. Upon returning she went back to her position as a laundress and began to plan her next move. By the year 1915, she knew she would only be allowed to go but so far in the Jim Crow south and she had her fill of being a domestic worker and the abuse, drudgery and hardship that went with it. African Americans were essentially barred from participating in anything. They couldn’t ride in railway cars with white folks and, of course , there were the separate public facilities i.e. eating places and bathrooms. Being allowed to vote required a literacy test for Blacks which was rigged so that nobody could pass it. Only a few jobs would be open to her as a young Black woman and those would only offer a dead end job that would go no place and would not allow her to improve. So she turned her eyes to the North and Chicago. She was sure there were more opportunities and a lot more exciting things to do and see. She had brothers living there and she knew she could stay with them for a while. One brother had a good job as a Pullman porter and the other found himself doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. Since Bessie felt she was starting a new life, she decided she needed a new career and she enrolled in a beauty school, finishing a course in manicuring. With her good looks and determination, Bessie was set on making something of herself with her new career. She gravitated to an area on the South side of Chicago known as “The Stroll” which had stylish shops, banking establishments and restaurants. One of her first jobs was in the White Sox Barber Shop where she could meet many rich and powerful Black men of Chicago. She was earning both a reputation as the best manicurist in town and big tips. For Bessie this was not the end but a means to an end that was not quite clear as yet.
In 1918, Bessie’s mother and three younger sisters came to Chicago to join Bessie and the brothers who had returned from World War I in Europe. The brothers were full of stories of the French women who were pilots and had careers. This was a career she never could have imagined and it ignited her desire to make something of herself and leave a trail for other Black women to follow.
She set off on a course to realize her dream and immediately hit an obstacle. She could not find anyone who would teach her how to fly in the United States. She was Black and she was a woman. This required an alternate approach. She decided she would have to go to the country that had taught those French women to fly. The first obstacle was her inability to speak French so she took a course from a language school in Chicago. With money she had saved and help from some wealthy supporters she had met at the Barber Shop, she got a passport and in 1920 she left for France. In a span of seven months she completed a ten month course, learning to fly, do tail spins, loop-the-looping and banks. Even witnessing a fatal accident involving one of her fellow students did not change her mind. In 1921 she received her license from the world renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale and with it, she became the first Black woman to receive a license from that or any institution and the first Black American female pilot!
On her return to the USA, she was greeted by a lot of positive and supportive press who were just waiting to cover the spectacle of a Black female pilot doing stunt flying. Once back in the states, Bessie realized she did not have the skills needed to perform flying for entertainment. It was at this point that she returned to France to get the advanced training she needed in order to draw big crowds. She also made it her business to know all the ins and outs of not just flying but also about the machinery itself. While in Europe she visited airplane manufacturers in Germany and Holland.. As her life began to take shape, Bessie realized that her goal was to start aviation schools so that other women would be able to benefit from what she had learned and be independent. Back again in the USA, she used everything she knew in order to be successful. She was getting to know the business end and being a young, attractive women and she used what she had at her disposal which was a real sense of style and drama to generate publicity for herself.
Ms. Coleman felt she had done her homework necessary to make her dream come true for herself and her people. She had prepared herself. As Joseph A. Bailey II, MD says in his book, Preparing to Prepare, “A major purpose of preparing to prepare is to give boundaries for our dreams and guidelines for climbing the mountains to get there. Champions in preparation say: A job well-planned is a job half-done. Champions preparing to prepare say: A plan well-framed is a plan half-done.” Bessie Coleman was ready to climb the mountain. Sharon Bingaman RN