Remembering Bessie Coleman
125 years ago, Atlanta native began amazing journey
By Randy Grider
Bessie Coleman’s brief, but adventure-filled, pioneering life began here in Cass County 125 years ago Thursday.
By the time of her tragic death in 1926, Bessie had left a legacy that is still being written today. Her determined spirit took her from an impoverished upbringing in Texas to Chicago to Europe and across the United States as a barnstorming aviator.
Today, she is often remembered as Queen Bessie -- the first woman of color in the world to receive an international pilot license and to fly an airplane.
Lynne Spivey, former Atlanta City Development Corporation executive director and founder of the Atlanta Historical Museum, is an advocate of keeping Bessie’s legacy alive for future generations and promoting her local ties.
“I think it’s important that we keep her memory alive for young people and that we take advantage of designated times of the year when it’s appropriate to remember people who made inroads for us and made things better for all of us,” Spivey said. “Bessie Coleman is certainly one of those sterling examples.”
Spivey, who now lives in Tyler with her husband and Atlanta native Bob Spivey, said she believes Bessie Coleman has a wide-ranging appeal that has the potential to lure visitors from around the world.
“There is no one of international importance in Atlanta, Texas more famous than Bessie Coleman, who could draw international visitors,” Spivey said. “She is the only person ever born in Atlanta, Texas that would draw international visitors.”
Bessie was born Jan. 26, 1892 in Atlanta -- the 10th of 13 children belonging to sharecroppers George and Susan Coleman. Her father was part African American and part Native American, and he and his wife, like many early settlers, had moved to Atlanta from Georgia.
When Bessie was 2 years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where her father had purchased a quarter-acre of land to farm. But he found life in Texas to be a tough one for a man who was part black and part Indian. In 1901, he moved to the Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma, but his wife couldn’t be persuaded to move with him.
Susan, working as a domestic, continued to raise her four children who had not left home. Bessie attended a one-room segregated school where she was an excellent math student. At age 18, she enrolled at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Okla. She completed only one term before she ran out of money and returned to Texas.
In 1916, one of her two brothers who were Pullman porters in Chicago convinced her to move to the Windy City. It was there, that Bessie was exposed to a new world and the possibilities for her to overcome both poverty and her status in life as a black woman.
She worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. She was popular with both black and white clients. Her interest in flying was stirred by stories from her brothers and other World War I veterans about flying during the war.
Bessie took a second job in a chili parlor to earn money for flying lessons. When no school in the United States would accept her, she was encouraged to go to France, where sex and race were not obstacles in her pursuit of her goal.
She took French classes in Chicago and on Nov. 20, 1920, Bessie traveled to France.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie’s barrier-breaking dream became a reality when she earned an international pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
“You’ll see a lot of references to her being the first African-American to receive a pilot license, but it’s actually more accurate to say first woman of color because if you simply say she was the first African-American, you limit her description to the Americas and cut her scope on the world stage,” Spivey said. “She represented all people of color all over the world, which included those in the far eastern Indian countries and other areas across the globe.”
Bessie spent two more months in Paris honing her flying skills. Then in September, she returned to the United States, where she was greeted as a media sensation.
Despite her flying credentials, Bessie found making a living as a civilian pilot in the early days of aviation was not feasible. She returned to Europe in early 1922 to gain the training and experience needed to become a exhibition pilot. She trained in Paris, the Netherlands and Germany before returning to the United States six months later.
Flying primarily borrowed Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war, Bessie began a five-year barnstorming and lecture tour across the country. Her first American air show took place on Sept. 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. The show was held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City.
From there, Bessie’s goals were two-fold: she wanted to purchase her own plane and to open a black aviation school.
Bessie was a skilled stunt pilot and parachutist and earned a following of black and white fans wherever she performed. She also took a stand against segregation at her shows, including those in her native Texas in the summer of 1925, where she drew thousands of spectators at each show. The barnstorming Texas tour included shows in Houston, San Antonio, Richmond and Waxahachie in addition to many smaller communities.
“Her shows were very popular,” Spivey said. “She began to refuse participation at flying shows if African Americans were not treated equally as participants. If there were two gates, one for African Americans and one for all others, she would not participate. She wanted there to be equal treatment at her flying shows.”
Bessie’s dream of founding a school for black aviators was cut short in Jacksonville, Fla., on April 30, 1926, when she fell from a plane she had just purchased in Dallas that was piloted by her mechanic William Wills of Terrill, Texas.
They were scouting for a suitable landing spot for her to perform a parachute jump at a scheduled air show the following day. She was not buckled in when the plane rolled and nose-dived. Bessie fell more than 500 feet and died instantly.
Wills crashed the plane about 1,000 feet from where Bessie’s body lay.
Ironically, though injured from the crash, Wills died when one of the show’s organizers inadvertently lit a cigarette during the rescue, causing the wreckage to ignite.
Reportedly it was the wrench, which had slid into plane’s uncovered gearbox that caused the plane to spin out of control
Bessie’s death at age 34 was memorialized in Jacksonville, Orlando and Chicago, where separate funerals drew more than 15,000 mourners. She was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.