3. Bessie Coleman.
Fictional heroine Ace Carroway loves to fly and faces danger with grit. Real past and present pilots have that same love and that same courage. I’d like to pay some homage to a few of them in this blog.
Bessie Coleman followed her dreams to fly fighting the forces of racial discrimination and poverty to become the first African American and also Native American woman to obtain a civil pilot’s license. Born in 1982 to sharecropper parents, it wasn’t long before Bessie was picking cotton alongside her mother and siblings in the fields near Atlanta, Texas. She attended a one room schoolhouse four miles from her home, segregated from white people and poor.
Moving to Chicago in 1915 at age 23 meant more hard work. Bessie lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. But she also heard stories of pilots in World War I that were using airplanes as a weapon of war and performing daring feats. At some point, the desire to fly kindled in her heart and would not be extinguished.
In 1918 Bessie began pursuing her dream in earnest, seeking entrance to a flying school to earn a pilot’s license. Like a good fictional hero, she overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers. She had little money to pay for the course in flying. She was a woman, and there were very few female pilots in 1918. She was black, and therefore dealt with the thousand inequalities of racial discrimination every day. No American flight school would admit her.
But she persisted. She heard that women could go to flight school in France. She began scraping and saving money for such a trip, working also as manager of a chili parlor. She learned to speak French. She got much needed financial assistance from Robert Abbott, one of the first African American millionaires. In 1920 she set off for the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation.
Though she saw another student die in a plane crash, and though she was the only non-white, Bessie obtained her pilot’s license in June of 1921. On her return to the United States, reporters published stories about her. She began a five-year career as a “barnstormer,” a daredevil stunt flyer thrilling audiences with death-defying maneuvers in her WW-I surplus Jenny. Bessie herself became an expert parachuter. Significantly, she refused to perform at venues where blacks were not allowed, though she was invited many times.
Bessie had a dream of encouraging black men and women to fly, and wanted to open a flight school. A 1926 aerial accident ended that dream. An estimated ten thousand mourners came to her funeral.
You’ve never lived till you’ve flown!