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Bits of Books, Part 2

February 1, 2012 1 comment

Here is a piece I wrote a little while ago for a book on female aviation pioneers. It saw print in 2004 in a newspaper called Women’s Independent Press, but second rights are available if anyone likes it.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

She was the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. Bessie Coleman was born close to where the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana meet, one of thirteen children. Her father moved around, and when her mother went to work as a cook/housekeeper for a prosperous white family, 9-year-old Bessie was left to raise her younger sisters. Bessie didn’t attend school regularly, but loved to read and dreamed of going to college. She worked as a laundress to raise money, and by 1910 she had enough money for one year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal College in Langston, Oklahoma. She couldn’t afford more than the one year, but by 1915 she was on her way to a new life in Chicago, where two of her brothers lived. In Chicago’s African American section, she found opportunities and support that weren’t available in the South.

She trained as a manicurist, and within a year she won a contest as the best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago. Her name was linked with several men, but it came as a surprise to her family when she married Claude Glenn, 14 years her senior. Stranger still, they never lived together, and never formally announced their marriage.

Bessie’s life changed when the United States entered World War I. Her brothers went to serve in France, and came back talking of the lack of racial prejudice there. Some French women had high-powered careers, and even flew airplanes. Despite the pioneering efforts of Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law and others, there was still a lot of resistance in America to women learning to fly; for an African American woman to do so was unthinkable.

Bessie quit her job as a manicurist and got a better paying job as manager of a chili parlor. By November 1920, she was on her way to France. She enrolled in the Caudron Brothers flying school, and finished the course three months early. On June 15th, 1921, she received a pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. After further training in Paris, she returned to Chicago in October. However, the air show circuit of the day demanded aerobatic skills, and even with her International Pilot’s License, Bessie couldn’t find anyone to teach her. The following February she returned to France. She trained there for the next six months, meeting legendary aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and flying in Germany and elsewhere. Some of her flights were filmed, and suddenly she was news. Reporters met her ship when she returned to New York, and she played to the press with a prepared biography that gave her a more interesting life and cut a few years from her age. She knew that the goodwill of the press would be vital in accomplishing her new ambition – to found a flight school for African Americans.

Bessie hit the air show circuit. Refusing to appear in any air show that did not allow blacks to attend – “No Uncle Tom stuff for me,” she said – she fought both racial and sexual prejudice. She also dropped advertising leaflets. While preparing for an air show in Los Angeles in early 1923, she suffered a bad crash and was hospitalized for three months. It would be September before she was fit to fly again, and she filled in time by giving a series of lectures on aviation. She was scheduled to appear in two air shows in September 1923, but neither took place, and she started to get a reputation for being temperamental and unreliable. Air shows became reluctant to book her, and it was May 1925 before she succeeded in lining up an air show and lecture series in Texas. By September she had added parachute jumping to her repertoire. In early 1926 she lectured in Georgia and Florida, raising money to pay for a plane of her own to replace the one she had crashed.

Edwin Beeman, the wealthy owner of a chewing gum company who was fascinated with aviation, gave Bessie the money for her final payment, and the plane, a Curtiss Jenny, was to be delivered to Jacksonville, Florida, in time for an air show scheduled for May 1st, 1926. It barely made it, as its 90 horsepower engine was so worn and badly maintained that it was developing less than two-thirds of full power. The morning before the air show, Bessie took off to check out landing places for a parachute jump. With her mechanic at the controls, Bessie unfastened her seat belt so that she could look over the side of the plane. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly went into a tailspin and flipped over, throwing Bessie out; she fell to her death. An examination of the charred wreckage revealed that a wrench had slid into the control gears and jammed them.

In 1995, the US Post Office issued a Black Heritage postage stamp in Bessie’s honor. Every year on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over her grave in Chicago to drop flowers.

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