The Bessie Coleman Story
Biography / Documentary
“…In the quest to fulfill her dreams she was only hindered by being born in the wrong country – at the wrong time – the wrong gender – and the wrong race – other than that things were perfect.”
The story is about Bessie Coleman who arose from the poverty of the Texas cotton fields at the turn of the century to become the first Black licensed pilot in the world. This achievement alone is remarkable. The fact she did it in 1921, living in a country torn apart by racism and hatred is even more remarkable! – but the true story of Bessie Coleman is not about achieving lofty goals it is the story of one woman’s unwavering believes in herself, her principles, and her race! What she was able to accomplish during this shameful period in American history is astonishing.
Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been born yet. It would be thirty-four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Alabama bus. There were no sit-ins, no freedom riders, and no marches on Washington. It would be forty-three years before the Civil Rights Act! There was just a brave young woman, alone, who in her own words… “Refused to take no for an answer.” Today as Bessie’s legend continues to unfold she is being heralded as one of this country’s first civil rights leaders.
Over the years many honors have been bestowed on Bessie Coleman. Schools, parks, libraries streets, and airports honor her name. Once a year there is a fly-by over her gravesite to drop flowers and honor her memory. Many pilots of the famed Tuskegee Airmen credit Bessie with them becoming flyers. The City of Chicago has proclaimed May 2nd as Bessie Coleman Day. But perhaps the most deserving honor came in 1992 when the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating her achievements noting: …”Even sixty-five years after her death she continues to have a positive influence on millions of young people, and in doing so has achieved the status of… AN AMERICAN LEGEND.”
Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut in the world, was so moved by Bessie’s accomplishments she stated…“I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that there is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.”
And yet, many people have never heard of Bessie Coleman. Although she was famous in the African American community for her daredevil flying, her unyielding attitude, and her efforts to help uplift the race, White newspapers rarely printed positive stories about Blacks. The reality of her remarkable achievements and courage were slow in coming.
Bessie Coleman knew aviation was the pathway to the future and dreamed of opening a flying school and teaching others of her race to fly. As she toured the country performing flying shows she also visited every Black school in town to talk with the children. Her message was always “If I can do it…you can do it”! That message is the theme of the film.
Elizabeth Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in the dusty farming town of Atlanta, Texas. She was the 10th born of 13 children. At the age of two, her family moved to the booming cotton town of Waxahachie, Texas where jobs were more plentiful.
Her father, George Coleman, was mixed blood – part Black and part Choctaw Indian. Racism was rampant in the South and more so for George because of his Indian heritage. When Bessie was 8 years old, her father, weary with the daily racism and hatred decided to move the family to Oklahoma, then Indian Territory, but Bessie’s mother would have no part of it – so he went alone, leaving her and four girls behind.
Bessie was a gifted child who soaked up knowledge like a sponge. She excelled in math and was an avid reader. She was inspired by the essays of W.E.B. Du Bois; the exploits of Harriet Tubman who lead over 300 slaves to freedom; and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar who penned the famous praise “I know why the caged bird sings”.
Although another one of her favorite books was the anti-slavery epic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, the conduct of the characters Uncle Tom and Topsy disgusted young Bessie, she considered them cowards for being doormats for the slave owners. She often promised her Mother “I will never be like Uncle Tom.”
Susan Coleman worked as a domestic and Bessie took in laundry and cared for her younger sisters during the day. School was easy for her. She spent her eight years of grade school in the same one-room schoolhouse, a four-mile walk from home. When it was time for the cotton to be picked the schools would shut down so Bessie would hang-out at the cotton weighing scales – using her math skills to make sure the White farmers didn’t cheat the workers.
At the age of 17, Bessie and her Mother had saved up enough money for her to spend one year at the Colored Agriculture and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. She easily passed through the required high school classes and then studied college-level English, algebra, Latin, physiology and botany.
Growing up in the South had a profound effect on Young Bessie. She was appalled at the way her people were treated and driven to “make something of herself” and in doing so help uplift the race. She didn’t see that happening in the brutal conditions of Texas. So, in 1915 she moved to Chicago, where two of her brothers had relocated years earlier. She promised her mother and sisters she would get a good job and move them there within two years and she was true to her word.
While some Jim Crow Laws existed in the North, Chicago had something not to be found in the South – opportunity. Bessie attended a beauty school to learn how to manicure and landed a job in a barbershop on the south side of Chicago in a 16 block area known as “the Stroll”. It was in the years leading into the Roaring 20s and her customers ranged anywhere from bankers, pimps, entertainers, and gangsters. It was also the jazz era and the best entertainment in Chicago could be found on The Stroll. Bessie was young, pretty, and smart, and she made friends with not only successful businessmen but many soon- to- be entertainment legends such as the first Black superstar, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and soul singer, Ethel Waters. She was making good money and having a lot of fun. But she was still just a, “A shop girl, “not Bessie’s idea of “amounting to something.”
WW1 was being fought in Europe and Bessie followed the news in the paper. She was fascinated by the daring exploits of the pilots flying airplanes. One day her brother Johnny, a veteran of the war, was teasing her about the many advantages of French women and how they were even learning how to fly airplanes. A light flashed in Bessie’s head. Her brother had unknowingly just charted her future – she would become a pilot and teach others to fly. She knew the airplane was going to change the course of history and wanted her race to be a part of it. Of course, No one took Bessie seriously at first, and for good reason – In the United States there were two types of people flying schools refused to teach, women and Negroes and Bessie just happened to be both.
Bessie would need to go to France to learn, and that would require a lot of money. But she considered these minor problems – because the best way to get Bessie Coleman to do something was to tell her it couldn’t be done! Quitting was never an option in her life.
With the backing of two Black Chicago businesses, Bessie went to Somme, Crotoy France, where she was accepted as a student at the famed Caudron School of Aviation.
On June 15, 1921, after an exhaustive 7-month course, Bessie Coleman was awarded an International Aviator’s license and became the first Black in history to receive a pilot’s license. This achievement stunned many in white America who up until then considered Negroes incapables of flying airplanes, especially a woman Negro! Upon returning home with her prestigious accomplishment she learned nothing had changed in the United States – the aviation industry was still closed to Blacks. Bessie couldn’t buy or even rent a plane, nor could she get a job in the fledgling industry that she wanted to be a part of. The only way she could raise money to realize her dream was by becoming a barnstorming pilot and putting on, “flying circus shows,” around the country. Since Bessie hadn’t learned the daredevil maneuvers needed to keep an audience on the edge of their seats, she would need to return to France for more training.
Undaunted, once again she boarded a boat and headed back to Europe. Bessie was admired and respected in Europe, not only because of her accomplishments but because of her courage and determination. She traveled to France, England, Germany, and the Netherlands, learning from some of the greatest pilots in the world. She returned home with film footage of her flying, letters from dignitaries, and airplane manufactures attesting to her knowledge and skills. Many European pilots publicly stated she was the best flyer they had ever seen, man or woman.
Bessie’s first show was at Glen Curtiss Field in Long Island, September 3, 1922. She designed it around a military theme to honor the 15th Army Regiment – the first Negro Regiment to fight in France during WW1. When Bessie made her entrance wearing a tailored leather flying suit, complete with Sam Browne belt, white silk shirt, and knee-high laced boots, the crowd went crazy.
But Bessie Coleman was making more than a fashion statement; she was making a social statement to the many doors slammed in her face so far in her quest to fly. “Here comes Bessie Coleman…like it or not!”
Bessie became immensely popular in the Black Community and her shows always drew huge crowds. She was referred to as, “Queen Bessie” and “Brave Bessie” and became a symbol of pride. While she received front-page stories in Black newspapers, the White press ignored her, even though she performed at White shows too. And despite her popularity, she was still denied the “privilege” of buying or renting an airplane. While White flyers such as Emilia Earhart were given new planes and making thousands of dollars in endorsements, Bessie had to borrow old planes from fellow pilots, and endorsements were out of the question for a Negro woman pilot.
In the early years growing up in the South Bessie thought the way her race was treated was deplorable and never adjusted to it. She developed an “attitude”. Southern Whites called it “uppity” – the act of looking a White person in the eye – as an equal. Many Blacks felt her attitude was dangerous and distanced themselves from her. After all, it was a “White world” and it did cost many Blacks their lives at the end of a lynch mobs rope. But Bessie lived by her own set of principles and was unyielding. If Negroes were not allowed at a show, Bessie wouldn’t perform. If Negroes were required to use a side gate instead of the main gate, there would be no Bessie Coleman through any gate until the rule was changed!
When Bessie had the opportunity to star in a movie about her life, she walked off the set the first day because the director wanted to portray her arriving in Chicago as a poor literate girl in tattered clothes with a pack on her back – the stereotypical image of Blacks at the time.
For many Negroes in the 1920s “principles” were a nice word that got in the way of reality – Bessie Coleman understood this. Although her values cost her thousands of dollars in fees and were a constant disadvantage in achieving her goals, she simply would not compromise herself or her race. Period! Despite the “drawbacks,” Bessie’s talent, charm, and courage slowly etched away at the negativity and racism she faced. She toured the country putting on air shows. She lectured in the Black part of towns, at gatherings, and showed her flying films from Europe in theaters and Churches. Bessie always made it a point to visited schools to talk to children where her message was always, “If I can do it, you can do it.”
In 1926 Bessie Coleman’s dream of opening a Flying School was finally within reach. She had landed a name sponsor, was finally able to buy her own plane and was negotiating on a movie with a well-known and respected film company. Then tragedy struck.
On April 30, 1926, while preparing for an upcoming show in Jacksonville, Florida Bessie was killed in a flying mishap.
Bessie Coleman’s death overwhelmed the Black people of America in1926. Up until then, she was an impetuous young woman striving to help elevate her race. She said what she wanted, to whom she wanted, and let the chips fall where they may – and in doing so unknowingly became the spokesperson for millions of silent voices. With her untimely death, they had suddenly lost more than just a rising star – they had lost a family member. Her tragedy…was their tragedy.
The magnitude of the impact Bessie Coleman had on the Black community became strikingly apparent during the memorial and three funerals held in her honor. It wasn’t just Bessie’s accomplishments, but her uncompromising courage and values that captured their hearts. It also caused a great deal of soul searching for many in the affluent Black community who stood silently by at times when Bessie needed their help. Thousands of mourners, Black and White, attended funerals in three different cities. In Chicago alone, over 10,000 people filed past her coffin to pay their respects to “Brave Bessie”.
While Bessie Coleman never realized her plan of opening a flying school, she reached her goal of helping to uplift her race far beyond her wildest dreams. (Even for Bessie) Her legend is still growing.