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High flying hope

Pioneer aviatrix grew up in Waxahachie, suffered early death
Readers are aware February is designated as Black History Month but some may not realize that one major figure in African American history –– and in the history of aviation –– came from Ellis County.
Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Tex. and raised by sharecropper parents in Waxahachie, Bessie Coleman had a childhood fascination with planes that turned into an obsession.
“I was black, I was female, and I wanted to fly,” Coleman said. “I’d look up and think that if we’re ever going to better ourselves, we’ve got to get above these cotton fields.”
Coleman’s determination to “amount to something” sent her soaring higher than she could have imagined over the poverty of her youth.
The first African-American pilot on record and the first woman to earn an international flying license, Coleman became a celebrity for her unusual ambition, nicknamed “Queen Bess” by the media. 2008 marks the 82nd anniversary of the pioneering aviatrix’s death in a Florida plane crash but her legacy endures.
“She worked herself right up to the top,” said Coleman’s niece, Marion Coleman, in a recent interview about her aunt’s amazing life. She admitted that the family was afraid for Bessie in her dangerous flying career but proud of her accomplishments, even if they were unusual for a woman and an African-American.
“It is hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been for Miss Coleman to become a pilot just after World War I,” agreed Larry Neal of the Popular Rotorcraft Association.
Life for a young black woman in Ellis County in the early 1900s offered little beyond marriage and motherhood. But Coleman wasn’t content with conventional options. She wanted a career, her niece said, not a future of impoverished domesticity. After attending college classes in Oklahoma, Coleman briefly returned to her family’s farm in Waxahachie before moving to Chicago in 1920 where she made her living as a manicurist in the city’s thriving black urban community.
Yet she felt she was still in a rut. Her niece recalled that when family members, including Coleman’s brother, joined her in Chicago, they teased her about settling for a job in a beauty shop.
“You are always in there fumbling with nails and things,” her brother, who had just served in the war, told her. “Those women in France fly airplanes.”
The good-natured ribbing inspired her. If women in Europe had such freedom she wanted to experience it for herself.
As no flight schools in America admitted blacks, Coleman struck out on her own for France where she enrolled in the prestigious Federation Aeronautique Internationale, earning her license in 1921, the first black woman in the world to do so. Coleman returned to the U.S. the following year to much acclaim. Attractive, polished and outspoken she acclimated well to life in the public eye.
While Coleman relished the attention that came her way she insisted her motivation wasn’t fame but a genuine love of flying. She also spoke of her mission to establish an American flight-training school for blacks.
After recovering from serious injuries in an air-show accident in California in 1924, “Brave Bessie,” as the newspapers hailed her, embarked on a lecture tour, speaking on aviation and encouraging other blacks to join the profession.
“The air is the only place free from prejudice,” she said.
Coleman’s star status provided her the platform from which to address the civil rights of African Americans and women. She refused to fly in demonstations to which blacks weren’t permitted and turned down a Hollywood movie deal because the script was demeaning to her race.
She resumed her flying career in 1925 and renewed her hopes of founding a flight school with money raised from the successful beauty salon she had since opened in Chicago.
She and her plane, “Jenny,” were pictured regularly in the rotogravure feature sections of the press and in newsreels.
She revisited her old hometown of Waxahachie that year to perform at a show that was nearly cancelled when she learned blacks would be barred from entry. Coleman announced she wouldn’t fly if all races weren’t admitted to the fair. City officials relented but segregation was enforced within the gates of the concourse.
In April 1926 Coleman was in Jacksonville, Fla., preparing for a stunt show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League. With her mechanic in the cockpit, Bessie sat in the rear seat searching out likely sites for the parachuting routines she had added to her repertoire. But at 3,500 feet the controls jammed.
“Jenny” began to drop, entering a tailspin at 1,000 feet and flipping over at 500 feet. Coleman’s seat belt was unfastened and she somersaulted to her death. The plane crashed soon afterward, killing her mechanic as well. Coleman was only 34 years old.
Back in Chicago her remains were met by an escort from the Illinois National Guard and more than 10,000 people attended her funeral. On the anniversary of her death (April 30), pilots still drop flowers over Coleman’s grave at Lincoln Cemetery in memory of “Queen Bess.”
While she didn’t live to see the flying school she envisioned come to fruition, following her passing the Bessie Coleman Aviation Clubs were organized. Today the Bessie Coleman Foundation in Washington, D.C., keeps her memory alive, as does the First Flight Society at Kitty Hawk.
At least six biographies have been published and two documentaries produced about Coleman’s contribution to aviation history and in 1995 a commemorative U.S. stamp was struck in her honor. Inducted over the years into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, she was the subject of a presidential tribute during the 2003 U.S. Centennial of Flight celebration.
Locally in 2002, Mid-Way Airport near Waxahachie hosted a Popular Rotorcraft Association convention during which its annual “National Fly-In” program was conducted in memory of Coleman. At the event Waxahachie Mayor Joe Jenkins read an official proclamation in which he declared the weekend “Bessie Coleman’s ‘Dream of Flight’ Days.” Aircraft enthusiast and Waxahachie Daily Light publisher Neal White also spoke at the convention, stressing Coleman’s extraordinary feat at a time when women and African-Americans had few rights and almost no independent economic status.
“Planes were new and pilots were few and far between,” White said.
“But for a black woman in the South, for whom there were no opportunities already, to try and get a flight license, well, that was a nearly impossible goal.”
With customary grit and grace Coleman met her goal and led the way for more women and minorities to experience their own dreams of flight –- and freedom.
Not long before her fatal accident Coleman was asked by a reporter whether she was ever afraid in the air.
Typically Texan, her response was brave: “Whatever happens, there shall be no regrets.”

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Posted by on Feb 25 2008. Filed under Editorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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