Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365 a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I want to present the story of the first licensed African American female pilot, Bessie Coleman aka “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”.
A lot of people are familiar with aviator Amelia Earhart and Americans revere her as one of the pioneers in aviation. However, they were unsung individuals in American history and in this case pilots that have been neglected to be taught and discussed to Americans. During a time when segreation and discrimation was legal and the norm it was easier and more acceptable for white America to see a white woman achieving successful endeavors compared to a black woman who accomplished just as much as her (Earhart) and her white counterparts.
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta Texas in 1939 during a time and society full of poverty, Jim Crow discrimination, and segregation. At 23 she moved to Chicago to seek her fortune, but she came across hardships and found minimal opportunity there. She became aware of the wild tales of flying exploits from returning from WWI soldiers, and this inspired her to learn and explore aviation. Another reason that can be attributed to her desires in aviation was her brother who fought in WWI. After he returned home from France with stories for Bessie he told her that her dreams of becoming a pilot were futile compared to French women who were allowed to learn to fly and Bessie couldn’t. With all her aspirations to become an aviator and create her adventures, there was a double obstacle and stigma she had to overcome to reach her goals and that being black and a woman in America. That would not deter her from achieving her goals and she went for it with much persistence even if her journey was adverse.
Coleman set her sights on France to reach her dreams and while staying there she learned French. In 1920, she crossed the ocean with all her savings and the financial support of Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, one of the first African American. For the next seven months, she learned to fly and in June of 1921, the Federation of Aeronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot’s license. When she returned to the United States she was widely celebrated to the point where reporters were rushing to greet and get stories of her adventures.
Over the next five years, Coleman performed at numerous airshows. She performed heart thrilling stunts, encouraging other African Americans to pursue flying and refusing to perform where black people were not admitted. When she tragically died in a plane accident in 1926, a famous writer and equal rights advocate Ida B. Wells presided over her funeral. An editorial in the Dallas Express stated, “There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such”.
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