Bessie Coleman was the daughter of two former slaves. Born in a one-room cabin in Texas she and her family struggled. Bessie had to drop out of school after the eighth grade. Though she could no longer attend school she continued to read to her siblings.
However, through all of this, she was determined that she was going to be someone. She in fact, regularly told this to her mother. Her opportunities came after she moved to Chicago to live with her brother.
While in Chicago Bessie became a master networker in the south side of Chicago. It was during this time that she found the goal that was going to make her somebody: Bessie Coleman was going to be a pilot.
There was just one problem. Bessie Coleman was black.
In 1920 not only were there no African American pilots, there were no pilots willing to even teach her. You see, in 1919, a black teen drifted on Lake Michigan to the white side of Chicago and drowned as a result of being stoned by the residents. The night of the teen’s death a mini-war broke out between the whites and blacks broke out. The next day a group of white people went into a black community and pulled a number of the residents off a street car and beat them to death.
Bessie by this point had gained a sponsor in her endeavor by the name of Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender. It was at his insistence that Bessie go to France. Not only was racism against the black people was non-existent in France, the people were actually a bit infatuated with them. In 1921 Bessie received her international pilot’s license.
After traveling around Europe performing in air shows she came back to the United States in 1922. She had one major goal: to bring aviation to the African American community. However, Bessie still had to overcome race issues.
In 1921 the Tulsa Race Riot made the American white people very uneasy about African Americans flying planes. A black man rode up an elevator with a white woman. The actual account of what happened in the elevator varies, however, the result is that it sparked a race riot. During the riot, a group of white pilots bombed a wealthy black suburb of Tulsa killing 75 people. As a result of this, prominent members of the African American community called for African Americans to become pilots so that the community could protect themselves against the race war that they were convinced was going to occur.
This was the country that Bessie was returning to. It was going to be next to impossible to create a flight school but never the less she persisted. Articles began running in newspapers showing her being honored by prominent pilots of Europe. She received the name “Queen Bessie.”
In 1922 she performed in her first American aviation show with a flight performance dedicated to the 15th regiment of infantry, the first segregated African American regiment that arrived in France during WWI. Through her flight shows she was able to bring both the white and black communities together in peace. Likewise, she was beloved by both races.
While flying a show in Los Angeles in 1923 she crashed her Jenny, the first plane that she had ever owned. She spent three months in the hospital with a broken leg, lacerations, and several broken ribs. But never the less, she persisted. Three months after the accident she told a reporter, “Tell the world, I am coming back.”
During her recovery, she gave lectures and showed films of her flying inspiring other young African Americans to become aviators. When she returned to the Chicago she continued her lecture series and partied with the likes of Josephine Baker and an African Prince. She told everyone who would listen about her dream of starting an aviation school.
As soon as her recovery finished she was back in an airplane flying in shows all over the midwest. In 1925 Bessie returned to Texas with a Juneteenth aviation show celebrating when African Americans in Texas were finally freed from slavery. She did shows all over Texas and was even a guest at the Austin Governor’s home (even though this angered the Ku Klux Klan).
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in Miami in 1926. While riding as a pilot in a test flight for an air show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League, she was thrown from the plane during a nose dive maneuver gone wrong. Bessie wasn’t wearing a seatbelt or parachute. The pilot died on impact.
Equal rights activist, Ida B. Wells, led the funeral ceremony which was attended by 5,000 people in Chicago. Her dream of flight school was posthumously opened in Los Angeles in 1929 by Leutant William J. Powell He named the school the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. Every year on the anniversary of her death black pilots fly over her grave in Chicago dropping flowers on her grave.
Bessie Coleman was the original Queen B. Through her love for aviation Bessie Coleman promoted unity and empowered young people of the African American community to go out and achieve their dreams. Because of that, Bessie was and still is a Fierce Femme.