Black History Month: The Enduring Legacy Of Badass Aviator Bessie Coleman

Carol H. Hood | February 15, 2016 - 10:00 am

It’s Black history month, and for me this means opening the doors to my hall of heroines to highlight the tremendous contributions Black women have had on not only American history, but its ripple affect through the world. Let’s consider women’s aviation, which is usually dominated by faces like Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, but Bessie Coleman’s actions had a ripple affect started with our country’s aviation education system, proceeded through the United States Armed Forces and erected opportunities all over the world for female aviation that are still being celebrated today.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was the first American, African American, and woman to earn an international aviator license. Her journey more or less began in 1915, when at the age of 23, Coleman was living in Chicago, Illinois and working with her brothers at a barbershop. Her brothers cut hair and she was a manicurist. During this time, she fell in love with stories from pilots returning home from World War I and thus began her journey.

Coleman could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was not only a Negro, but a woman at that! The outcome looked bleak, but Robert Abbott, owner of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to not let a little thing like reality get in her way.

Coleman took a French-language course and then with the backing of both Abbot and Jesse Binga, founder of the Binga Bank, the first privately owned bank that serviced African Americans—she travelled to Paris on November 20, 1920 and began her education at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. On June 15, 1921, Coleman earned her international aviation license.

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Coleman became a stunt pilot, a popular one at that. She made her first appearance in an American air show on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Coleman was featured amongst eight other American ace pilots participating in aerial displays and a jump by African American “wing-walker” and “jumper” (parachutist) Hubert Julian.

Coleman was susceptible to criticism, called by the media, “brash and arrogant”, especially after she crashed during a difficult aerial stunt and broke a leg and three ribs. But Bessie Coleman listened not to the haters, as soon as she was healed and was soon back better than ever performing her daredevil maneuvers including: figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips, to gasping, enthusiastic crowds. She was soon a common name among aviators and billed in newspapers as THE WORLD’S GREATEST WOMAN FLIER.

Coleman’s death was as dramatic as her career. In 1926, She was 34, down in Jacksonville, Florida, and she as well as her mechanic/agent William Wills were test flying a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) that Coleman had recently acquired. Coleman was looking over the cockpit, trying to get a good look at the area she’d be making a parachute jump over, for she had a show the next day. Ten minutes into the flight, Wills lost control of the plane (It was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it). The plane tossed Coleman, who hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, from the plane, before plummeting to the ground and bursting into flames. Wills died upon impact while Bessie Coleman fell 2,000 fell to her death.

Coleman’s talent and popularity turned the tide in American aviation schooling. Her legacy inspired one Willa Brown Chappell to go for her license, and she was able to at Chicago’s Aeronautical University in 1937, thus becoming the first African-American woman to be licensed to fly in the United States.

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Chappell had a huge impact on the United States Army Air Forces. She co-founded National Airmen’s Association of America, an organization dedicated to recruiting African Americans into the United States Air Force. In addition, her husband at the time, Lieutenant Cornelius R. Coffey, founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where they trained around 200 pilots who went on to become notorious pilots who had an historic impact on the outcome of World War II and forever changed the dynamics of the United States Air Force.

Tuskegee Airmen, anybody?

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Nowadays, Coleman’s legacy can be seen all over the world, take Ethiopian Airlines for example, that just made history for assigning the first all-woman operated flight.

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Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel,American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.