September 2nd, 2020


Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator

I don't remember when I first heard of Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to earn a pilot's license, but every time I heard anything about her I wanted to know more. So I finally found a whole book about her.

You hear "first black woman pilot" (and first Native American pilot) and wonder what got her into flying, then you find out she was the oldest of 13 babies (nine surviving), she was born on a Texas farm in 1892, flying schools wouldn't teach black students so she had to learn French and study in France... you ORDER THE BOOK.

Bessie Coleman's parents didn't know how to read or write, but she got to go to school two years after the supreme court determined that black children deserved a "separate but equal" education. Black teachers, with barely a sixth grade education, would hold class in one cold room for grades 1-8 after the cotton had been harvested for the entire county. If the harvest took until December, that's when the school year started, and it would end when it was time to plant again. Bessie was her family's star and entertainment. They'd spend their evenings listening to her read, first the Bible, then an annual library wagon brought her books about black heroes... Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Harriet Tubman. That ten year old girl, tired of picking cotton, raised by a mother who told her children to "amount to something", must have gotten some ideas. She attended college after finishing the 8th grade at her school, but the college said her education was closer to a 6th grade level, and she ran out of money after one semester anyway.

In 1915 she followed one of her brothers and moved to Chicago. Texas was violence and poverty, fellow blacks were telling each other it was "better to die of frostbite than at the hands of a mob". She became a beautician in Chicago, part of a new exciting economy that included up-and-coming circles in everything from industry to journalism to organized crime. When her brother returned from WWI, he bragged about how wonderful Europe was, how impressed he was that even French women could fly airplanes. That's when the ambitious Bessie Coleman decided to be a pilot.

With financial help from black newspaper editors (they liked news, she'd be news) she studied French at the local school, boarded a ship to France, found the only school there that would train a woman, and learned to fly. She finished the ten month course in seven months, walking an 18 mile round trip each day from where she lived, speaking a new and unfamiliar language, watching other students crash to their deaths right in front of her. After returning to the US she went back to Europe for additional acrobatic training, and returned to Chicago in 1922 to try earning a living as a "daredevil aviatrix".

It was a tough living with lots of competition. She was constantly bragging that she was on the threshold of buying an airplane or starting a school for black pilots. She was not always honest about her age or achievements. But she definitely had the license and definitely amazed crowds with her flying. She wore a custom tailored uniform, refused to fly at shows where blacks were not admitted, chewed through managers who tried to tell her what to do, double-booked herself too many times, and was never quite financially ahead of the game. When she finally bought a plane in California in 1922, the motor failed on its maiden flight. She was pulled from the wreckage and badly injured. She took months to recover, and even more months to find the financial means to get back to flying.

She finally hit her stride when she went back to Texas in 1925. She flew rented planes at popular airshows and gave lectures for groups all around the south. It was a successful year, and 1926 could be even better. That year she finally had the money to buy a Jenny she'd been eyeing at Love Field, a "veritable shopping mall of used aircraft", crowded with surplus planes and parts. She made the final payments to the shop she'd had fixing an old plane up for her. The lead mechanic flew it out to her in Florida, surviving two forced landings on the journey. He took Bessie as a passenger so she could look out for parachute jump spots on a show the next day. The plane failed again when a loose wrench jammed in the engine. They both died in the crash. She was 34 years old.

She'd flown for 10000 people at single shows, and 5000 attended her funeral. She'd been a sensation, loved by children, credited with inspiring so many Americans, black and white, male and female, to fly.

She never gave up. Her story shows that getting the license, getting an education, making a story, can never be the end-all-be-all, she was constantly looking for the next step. She always had her dream of starting a school. So many aviation pioneers never lived long enough to see their visions develop. But of all the stories I've read, she came in with the least, and somehow outdreamed the most.