Episode 41: Bessie Coleman

Posted 9 August 2013 by

Amelia Earhart wasn’t the only American woman who soared into aviation history as she took her dreams to the sky. Bessie Coleman not only set aviation records of her own, but the story of her ascent above racial and gender barriers makes her a woman worthy of a long chat.

Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the 10th child of George and Susan Coleman, both sharecroppers. George was part American Indian and proud of his ancestry but pride doesn’t put food on the table, does it?  George and Susan scraped together enough money for a small plot and settled the family in Waxahachie, Texas.  As the more elder of the  Coleman children to survive childhood grew and moved out of the home, life never got  easy for Bessie. We talk about Bessie’s childhood in the podcast, the slow path to an education that she had due to time away from school because of cotton harvest,  the chores and responsibilities that she had and the impact of her father leaving the family for a life he thought would be more accepting of him in Oklahoma.

A book wagon, circa 1920 (courtesy libraryhistorybuff.com)

A bookwagon, circa 1920 (courtesy libraryhistorybuff.com)

Susan wanted her children educated and helped encouraged them to make that happen as best she could. Once Bessie completed the eight grades available to her, she helped save and eventually registered at college.

Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now simply Langston University...go Lions)

Unfortunately her money ran out after only one semester and headed back to Waxahachie to work as a laundress for several years. But Bessie wanted more out of life and moved to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers. The bright lights and big promises of the city didn’t prove all that more life advancing than they did in Waxahachie- laundress? Again? Bessie saw her opening and enrolled in Burnham School of beauty and Culture where she quickly trained to be a manicurist. Badda bing, Bessie is working in a barber shop on the see and be seen area known as The Stroll.

State Street early 1900's (courtesy nps)

When her brother John came back from World War I, he bragged about the amazing French women and teased Bessie that no African American woman could fly like a French woman.

With Wipe That Grin Off Your Face determination, Bessie set out to prove her brother wrong. (Such a strong motivator, isn’t it?) She had been bitten by the aviation bug while in Chicago, but she could not find any flight schools that would enroll her. Being both a woman and black was a double whammy.

So, she wants to fly.

She wants to show her brother that French women aren’t the only ones who can fly.

She does the most logical thing: she goes to France to learn to fly.

So it wasn’t quite that easy, and we cover so much more in the podcast but essentially that’s exactly what she does! (And does it a lot faster than Amelia even though they began taking lessons at about the same time.)

Bessie Coleman- the first black woman in the world to earn one of these! Pilot's license

When Bessie returned to the US with her shiny new license and aviatrix skills ( and no plane of her own) she set off on the air show circuit. While she was skilled, mechanical error led to a crash. Barely alive with bones broken and injuries that kept her sidelined,she insisted that she would fly again.

Early 1900's airshow over Grant Park in Chicago (courtesy chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com)

Of course she did! But she still didn’t have a plane of her own. What she did have was a dream. Bessie Coleman wanted to help desegregate aviation. Wherever she toured she refused to fly if blacks were not allowed into the show, and she held tight to a dream of opening her own flight school. Traveling the country on borrowed planes she fundraised- speaking and creating ever more elaborate and patriotic shows she was a big draw for air shows.

On April 30, 1926 Bessie and a mechanic were test flying a plane. As part of her performance Bessie parachuted off the plane, and the two were scouting a location. Bessie, so that she could see over the edge for a perfect landing spot, was not wearing her seatbelt. At 3,000 feet up, the plane went into a nose dive and Bessie fell to her death. She was 33 years old.

In 1929 the Bessie Coleman Aero Club , a flight school named in her honor opened in Los Angeles.

Bessie Coleman on a US postage stamp, 1995

TIME TRAVEL WITH THE HISTORY CHICKS

How did we miss this website? Get all your historical women gear (designed for kids but adult sizes available, too) A Mighty Girl. Maybe not exactly this doll though, unless that’s your thing, then here it is! You were looking for this!

Bessie Coleman Madam Alexander doll

Do not go here hungry! You were warned. The history of chili (and more…oh, so much more) What’s Cooking America

We know you are looking for this, all you runners, Marathon Du Medoc (Bordeaux Marathon). And here is a fun article about running it , good even if there is no chance of you ever attempting such an event! Food and Wine

Books! We only had a couple that we would recommend:

Fly High! by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger, Illustrated by Teresa Flavin

Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator by Doris L. Rich

While surfing…er, following a lead we stumbled across this blog that has very little to do with Bessie Coleman (other than this post about an entry from her beauty school primer) but thought it too interesting to not add here: Bobby Pin Blog Vintage make-up and beauty instructions, anyone?

Our music is courtesy of Musicalley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com
Show outro music : “Dreamers” by The Hipstones