Black History Month Profile:
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
--born on January 26, 1892 in Texas to two former slaves
--only made it to eighth grade because she was so impoverished that her and her siblings were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton
--she worked as a laundress for some years and saved her pay until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University; left after one year when she ran out of money
--in 1915, she moved to Chicago months, became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while continuing to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: to become a pilot
--there were no African American pilots in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her, Coleman turned to a friend, who suggested that she go to France; the French, he insisted, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation
--Coleman left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale license on June 15, 1921,becoming the first black female pilot in aviation history
--She then traveled around Europe, meeting with pilots, mechanics and engineers to learn more about planes and gaining further flying experience so that she could perform in air shows
--Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I
--Moving back to US, she wanted to build a school where all races were welcome to learn to fly; and performed in front of any audience to spark the interests of black people--Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923., but when she returned, she came back better than ever earning the name Queen Bess and enough money to build her school
--Even with her fame, no one would sell her a reputable plane, she was forced to buy old planes and fix them up for her shows--using most of her money to patch the poorly maintained planes
--On April 30, 1926 during a trial flight for an upcoming show Bessie Coleman sat in the other cockpit alongside her other pilot, William Wills, surveying the area over which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day; her seat belt was unattached because she had to lean out over the edge of the plane while picking the best sites for her program. At an altitude of 2,000 feet, the plane dived, then flipped over, throwing Coleman out. Moments later Wills crashed. Both were killed.
--Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.
“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”