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COLEMAN, BESSIE

Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)
Known as “Queen Bess,” Coleman gained great
fame as a stunt flier.
Courtesy National Air and Space Museum,
Smithsonian Institution.

COLEMAN, BESSIE (1892–1926). Bessie Coleman (Brave Bessie or Queen Bess), the world's first licensed black pilot, daughter of Susan Coleman, was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, the twelfth of thirteen children. She grew up in Waxahachie. Her father left the family in 1900 to return to Indian Territory. Bessie, along with several siblings still living at home, helped ease the family's financial troubles by picking cotton or assisting with the washing and ironing that her mother took in. Upon graduation from high school she enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Financial difficulties, however, forced her quit after one semester. She moved to Chicago, where a brother was then living, and attended beauty school for a time. She spent the early years of World War I working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbershop. She then operated a small but profitable chili parlor. Apparently in early 1917 Bessie Coleman married Claude Glenn, but she never publicly acknowledged the marriage, and the two soon separated.

In 1920 Coleman, acting on a lifelong dream of learning to fly, traveled abroad to attend aviation school in Le Crotoy, France, after she discovered that no American school would accept African Americans. Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender, assisted her in contacting schools abroad. After studying for ten months in France she was issued a license on June 15, 1921, by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, giving her the distinction of being the first black person in the world to become a licensed pilot. She returned to the United States in 1921. Her goal, in addition to making flying her career, was to open a flying school for black students. In 1922 she made a second trip to Europe and during her studies took lessons from the chief pilot for the Fokker Aircraft Company in Germany.

Coleman's first American air show was at Curtiss Field, near Manhattan, on September 3, 1922. She followed the success of this show with exhibition flights all over the country, many of them in her native South. After several years of touring the East and West coasts, she traveled back to Texas and established her headquarters in Houston in 1925. Her first performance in Texas took place in that city on June 19, 1925. Her daredevil stunts and hair-raising maneuvers earned her the nickname "Brave Bessie." She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4D planes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. During her trips she often gave lectures to schools and churches to encourage young black men and women to enter aviation. On one occasion in Waxahachie she refused to give an exhibition on white school grounds unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance as whites. The request was granted, although blacks and whites remained segregated once inside. Early in her career she was presented a loving cup for her achievements from the cast of Shuffle Along, a black Broadway musical. By 1926, the year of her death, Coleman had become one of America's most popular stunt fliers.

She had her first major accident in 1924 while barnstorming in California, and she took a year off to recover. On April 30, 1926, she died during a test flight before a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. About twelve minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a nosedive as planned; instead, it did a somersault and dropped Bessie Coleman to her death. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, fell with the plane and died on impact. Although the charred condition of the wreckage prevented a full investigation, the crash was believed to have been caused by a loose wrench that jammed the plane's controls. After funeral services in Jacksonville, which were attended by hundreds of admirers, Coleman's body was returned to Chicago, where she had made her home. She is buried there in Lincoln Cemetery. Although her dream of establishing a flying school for black students never materialized, the Bessie Coleman Aero groups were organized after her death. On Labor Day, 1931, these flying clubs sponsored the first all-black air show in America, which attracted 15,000 spectators. Over the years, recognition of Coleman's accomplishments has grown. In 1977 a group of black female student pilots in Indiana organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1990 a street in Chicago was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and May 2, 1992, was declared Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago. In 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in her honor.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, September 6, 1993. Roger Bilstein and Jay Miller, Aviation in Texas (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985). Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1993. Houston Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1926. Anita King, "Brave Bessie: First Black Pilot," Parts 1 and 2, Essence, May, June 1976. Doris L. Rich, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Roni Morales

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Roni Morales, "COLEMAN, BESSIE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcobq), accessed September 01, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on August 15, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.