Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Elizabeth Coleman

Queen Bess, a Barnstorming Pilot

Celebrate Black History Month – February 2016

As a young girl and the 12th in a family of 13 children, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman picked cotton in Waxahachie, Texas. Her mother didn’t learn to read, but she made sure to borrow plenty of books from the traveling library for her children. When Bessie reached college age she managed to pay her own way for a semester of college. Unable to afford to continue, she moved to Chicago to live with her brother where she learned to be a manicurist in a barber shop.

During WWI Bessie’s brother had been to France and told her about women there who could fly airplanes. Bessie became fascinated with the idea of being a pilot, but no flight schools in the U.S. would admit a woman, much less a black woman. Finally she realized she would need to go to France to learn how to pilot an airplane. The publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, Robert Abbott, agreed to sponsor her and also to fund her Berlitz French language course. As soon as she learned the language she boarded an ocean liner to France.

Bessie returned to the U.S., after earning a Federation Aeronautique International license to fly anywhere in the world. Bessie Coleman had become the first black woman aviator in the world. It had been less than 20 years since the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. Stunt flying was the rage during The Roaring 20’s, and Bessie quickly realized opportunities to perform in air shows were open to women in the U.S. She returned to France for advance training and flew her first show at Curtis Field near New York City. She flew in many more events sponsored by The Chicago Defender until a tragic aviation accident took her life in 1926 at the young age of 34.

Following her death, other blacks in the field of aviation helped bring her dream of U.S. flight schools for blacks to reality. Bessie Coleman influenced the march to equality for both women and blacks during her brief life as a pilot with her outspoken voice for change. Listen to an interview of Bessie Coleman by a young reporter, and you’ll understand how passionate she was about equality and the future of women in aviation. 

If you’re fascinated with early women aviators, be sure to read my January 29, 2016 post about Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Phoenix Publishing and Book Promotion blog.

Write On!

C.K. Thomas
“Take a chance, amaze yourself!”
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