First Culture

Bessie Coleman: The first black female pilot you know nothing about

Bessie Coleman: The first black female pilot you know nothing about

When 23 year old Bessie Coleman took a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbers shop, she had had no idea that she would in later years become the first black female pilot. But sitting in that room on a street in 1916 Chicago  – the black girl who had because of inadequate funds dropped out of Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University- tending to customers and listening to them tell stories of returning home from World War I of flying during the war, she would decide to become one.

And this vision would lead her to a second job at the Chili parlor, a black girl burdened with dreams, with doubts about the feasibility of these dreams. 1916 American flight schools did not admit black people, more so a black woman. And peradventure they did, she could never make enough money to pay for them herself even with her two jobs.

24 Jan 1923– Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

As one born  in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, whose Dad had left when she was a child in search of greener pastures, Bessie had an expected sense of responsibility, the realization that things couldn’t be done for her, that life never really handed anyone anything and that she in essence had to make things happen herself.

She had repeatedly promised her illiterate church going mother that she would one day amount to something.

This awareness of obligation -and encouraged by Robert Abbott – led to her decision to study abroad and then to French-language classes at the Berlitz school in Chicago.

She would leave the States for Paris in November 1920 and on June 15, 1921 would be awarded her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.; international pilot’s license) making her the first woman of African American and Native American descent to obtain an aviation pilot’s license.

When she returned to the United States in September, she met a different home. This new America was a home that wanted her, a home that although did little to aid her achievements was immensely proud of it, a home that longed to identify with her. She would leave for Europe again five months later when she realized that she needed more experience to make it big as a stunt flier, performing for paying audience, in the aviation business.

After thrilling learning experiences in Germany and the Netherlands, she would once more return to the states almost fully formed, armed with a stage name “Queen Bess” and making her first appearance in September 1922 at the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I event, geared at honoring her veterans.

It is Queen Bess who six weeks later will deliver a mind blowing demonstration of daredevil maneuvers to a huge crowd in Chicago, it is she who will be accused of taking advantage of Robert Abbott who had sponsored her to France, she who would break a leg and three ribs when her plane crashed in February 1923.

It is Queen Bess who will be known nationwide for daring to attempt the most difficult stunts, who will stare in a feature length film, Shadow and Sunshine and who will walk out the movie set when she learned the first scene was a shot of her in tattered clothes  because she had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks”, wrote Doris Rich.

It is she who would die in a plane crash on April 30, 1926 at 34 in a Curtiss JN-4 which she had been forewarned by her mechanic and family to be unsafe for flight, she who at an altitude of 1,000 feet when the plane dived, then flipped over would be thrown out slashing her with the same severity as her dreams fiercely against the earth.

But not then, not that day at the Infantry Regiment of World War I event. Then she was the media sensation, thrilling the American people with her stunts, grace and sheer strong-will. Then she was the small town black girl who had done big things, she was a force to reckon with, she was extraordinary.
A few months after her debut event, she will address a group of reporters about her future plans and say; I will be a leader in introducing aviation to my race. I will find a school for aviators of any race, and I will appear before audiences in churches, schools, and theaters to spark the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight.
And on her decision to be a pilot, she would say; The air is the only place free from prejudice.
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Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Senior Editor working out of East Africa.

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Bessie Coleman: The first black female pilot you know nothing about

by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke time to read: 3 min