Don’t tell me there aren’t any women role models for aspiring adventurers.
Let me tell you about Bessie Coleman.
Maybe you have heard of her. I hadn’t.
Bessie Coleman was born in the late 1800s in Texas. Her mother was a maid, her father a sharecropper. They had a large family, but when Bessie was about ten, her father decided to move home to Oklahoma. He was Native American. Some sources say he moved in hopes of escaping discrimination. Bessie’s mother, who was Black, chose not to go with him.
Bessie grew up helping her mother pick cotton and wash laundry. She tried to go to college but had to drop out after a semester. Her brothers enlisted during World War I while she worked as a manicurist in a barber shop. They came home and teased her that in France women were allowed to fly airplanes.
Bessie Coleman decided she was going to fly.
She applied to many American flight schools, but none would accept a woman. So she learned French, took the application exam in French, passed, and got her license.
According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, she was the first civilian licensed Black pilot in the world. She became what we’d call a stunt pilot, or a daredevil, doing exhibition flights all across the county and speaking about aviation, but only if the audience was desegregated, and all entered through the same gate. She was, audiences said, fearless.
Known as “Queen Bess,” she wanted to encourage women and minorities to reach their dreams. Her dream was to open an aviation school for African Americans. The money she earned went toward purchasing her own plane, and she invested in a beauty shop to increase the revenue she would need to open a flying school.
After a serious crash, she recovered and was able to finally buy her own plane in 1926. It was, as many planes were in those days, an open plane. There were no seat belts. During a test flight of that craft, during which her mechanic was flying and she was in the passenger seat, the mechanic lost control of the plane. It flipped, and Bessie fell to her death. The pilot crashed the plane and died as well.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett gave her eulogy. An estimated 15,000 people attended her service in Chicago. Starting in 1931, the Challengers Pilots Association of Chicago began yearly fly-overs of her grave. After her death, William J. Powell opened the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929. The Tuskeegee Airmen, the Flying Hobos, and the Five Blackbirds all trace their lineage back to that school, either directly or through its influence.
She entered the National Aviators’ Hall of Fame in 2006.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.