These true and famous words were once spoken by pioneer and aviatrix, Bessie Coleman. A visionary woman whose life ended too soon- but who led a life full and fearlessly for us all to follow.
Bessie was born into poverty as the 10th of 13 children to a sharecropper in Atlanta, TX. Intelligent and determined, she finished grade school (walking 4 miles one way to attend) and qualified first for a scholarship to a private Baptist secondary school and then on to Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now known as Langston, University). She completed one semester of university before school costs exceeded her resources, for which she had to drop out of- but not to give up on.
After a short trip home to Texas, Bessie relocated to Chicago, Illinois to join her brothers and find employment. Chicago was becoming a safe metropolitan for black families that were escaping the Jim Crow south. Aviation was still a fledgling industry, but the stories of flight and daring from soldiers returning from World War I captivated young Bessie, and she developed an obsession with flight. That, compounded with teasing from her brothers about the advances of other countries for women and support from friends fortified her resolve that she would fly.
Mr. Robert S. Abbott, founder of the weekly paper the Chicago Defender and media pioneer, suggested (and later helped finance, along with banker Jesse Binga) that Bessie travel to France to obtain her flight certificate. Bessie agreed, spending the summer learning French before she entered the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in January of 1921. She was the only minority in her class, and in seven months earned her international pilot’s license.
Bessie returned to the United States as a mini celebrity; newspapers and other media had started to cover her story while she was overseas. She wanted to use this celebrity to advocate for black pilots while touring the country as a barnstormer. These traveling air shows involved the most death-defying aviation tricks in history, such as wing walking and parachute jumping, but the stunts required more advanced training – for which Bessie could not find a school that would train her. It was then that Bessie decided to sail back to France and complete her training, and link up with the famed Luftwaffe airplane designer Anthony Fokker.
As can be imagined, Bessie brought a lot of attention everywhere she went as she was not only the first black international pilot, but the first female black pilot. She was well spoken, educated and driven- and her goals were to fly over every school, church and neighborhood and establish the first flight school for minorities in the US. And, in true pilot spirit, she embellished some of her already remarkable achievements- giving her the nickname “Queen Bess”. Some media outlets accused her or being opportunistic and greedy, but it did not deter Queen Bess and her goals.
And, in true pilot spirit, she embellished on some of her already remarkable achievements- giving her the nickname “Queen Bess”
Her path continued to be met with challenges, when her first personal plane suffered a malfunction in flight and crashed, injuring Bessie with 3 broken ribs and a broken leg. It took 18 months for her to recover, during which time she spoke and advocated for minorities in aviation “I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of our race, who are so far behind the white race in this modern study,” she told reporters. She was selective in who she performed for, refusing events that were segregated or disallowed black audiences. “I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the race needed to be represented along this most important line.” Capitalizing on her courage and ability, she blazed a trail for women and minorities.
Her journey brought her to Jacksonville, Florida in 1926, near the birth place Mr. Robert Abbott of St. Simon, Georgia. An airshow hosted by the fledgling organization, The Jacksonville Negro Welfare League, was planned for 1 May, 1926 from Paxon Airfield – a small but active airstrip in the center of town. Bessie’s mechanic and agent had purchased a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane for her stunts, which he flew from Texas to Orlando for the show, but the plane was so poorly maintained that he was forced to land it multiple times along the way.
When Willis shared the mechanical issues with the Jenny, Coleman decided to go on with the show. Friends and family begged her to reconsider. Bessie was again undeterred, and chose to survey the area for her stunts on 30 April, 1926. Tragically, the Jenny had mechanical issues again for Mr. Willis, a wrench broke loose in the cockpit and lodged itself in the gear box. The plane began an unrecoverable nosedive from which Bessie was ejected and the killing the pilot shortly following.
A film was later produced by the Norman Film Company, loosely based on Bessie’s life story, titled The Flying Ace.
Although she lost her life at an early age, her legacy remains. There is a bronze plaque dedicated to her at Paxon School of Advanced Studies in Jacksonville, FL, and with effort we hope a more impactful memorial will be made to her soon. The remarkable tenacity and courage of Bessie Coleman will never be forgotten. Here is a toast to the brave Queen Bess.
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