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Wings Over Kansas Above the Cotton Fields: The Bessie Coleman Story – Wings Over Kansas

Above the Cotton Fields: The Bessie Coleman Story

This article appeared in the October 1990 issue of Code One Magazine.

Bessie Coleman

Labor Day Weekend, 1922. Clear skies, mild temperatures, and the promise of a show that had already been postponed once because of bad weather. A record crowd gathered that Sunday at Curtiss Field near Manhattan to see the latest craze in public spectacles — stunt fliers — do their thing. They would, as publicists had been screaming for days —  “risk their lives in the skies before your very eyes.”

With
imaginations stirred by the very thought of flight, many had come to
see the much-ballyhooed show. This particular show, however, would be
special. It would feature that rarest form of the stunt flyer known to
man, a woman. And if, as many believed, it was unnatural for man to
fly, they fully expected to see a perversion beyond comprehension, with
God-only-knows what consequences.

Bessie Coleman, star
attraction, was just one of hundreds of high-spirited young fliers in
those early days whose names have been obscured by such greats as
Wright, Thibaud, Beachey, Fokker, Curtiss, Quimby, and Meyers. They
flew surplus World War I Jennies and DeHavilands, which could be bought
for $200 and held together with bailing wire and glue. They flew the
countryside in the wake of carnivals and fairs, trying to earn a living
doing what they loved most. They landed in farmers’ fields and slept in
barns. They attracted crowds with their aerial acrobatics,
wing-walking, parachuting, and diving. Then they passed the hat and
offered short rides for a fee. There weren’t many jobs in aviation
then, and a man (or a woman) had to do what a man (or a woman) had to
do. Coleman was right smack in the middle of it all, but her name is
little known or remembered today.

It was a dangerous life.
Struts broke into pieces, engines failed, wing fabric ripped, and
landing wheels collapsed. Quite a few would-be pilots never made a
second flight.

And then there were the crowds. Most people
knew nothing of flying and they spilled onto the fields, gaping and
gasping in wonderment, often into the direct path of airplanes. High
winds and bad weather meant nothing to a crowd hell-bent on a show. If
a pilot refused to fly because of bad weather, disappointed spectators
might tear the airplane apart or, if they were really mad, go after the
pilot himself. Lincoln B. Beachey, one of the most famous of the early
stunt fliers, quit in disgust at the blood-thirsty crowds. He came to
believe that they paid only to see him die.

None of the risks deterred Bessie Coleman. She had a goal.

Coleman
was born January 26, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas, one of thirteen children.
Her mother was black and her father was of American Indian and black
descent.

She was still a toddler when the family moved to
Waxahachie, a small town thirty miles south of Dallas and she was only
seven when in 1900 her father returned to Oklahoma, then known as
Indian Territory.

Coleman’s mother, Susan Coleman, was left
in Waxahachie to raise the family as best she could. The children
helped by picking cotton from late November into December of every year
and the girls, as soon as they were old enough, helped with the washing
their mother took in to make ends meet.

Just a few years
later, the Wright Brothers made the first sustained flight in a
heavier-than-air vehicle at Kitty Hawk. Their flight was to be a
pivotal event in Coleman’s life.

Born with a drive to better
herself, Coleman was an avid reader. Although she could not read, her
mother made good use of the traveling library that came through two or
three times a year. Her girls never lacked for books and newspapers,
however old.

Coleman managed to finish high school (not a
small achievement itself, in those days), but plans for college proved
much too ambitious. Although her mother let her keep her earnings from
washing and ironing to attend Langston Industrial College, now Langston
University in Oklahoma, Coleman could afford only one semester. So she
dropped out, and went to live with an older brother in Chicago. There
she attended a beautician’s school, eventually going to work as
manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, then owned by the trainer of
Chicago’s American League baseball club.

She was determined
to get ahead, and she was determined to show the way to others
handicapped by what she believed were the evils of racism, sexism,
poverty, and ignorance. When pilots began to make headlines and
pictures of airplanes appeared regularly in magazines, Bessie toyed
with the idea of flying as a way out for her and others like her. By
the time the war was over, she had made a firm decision to learn to fly.

“It
was shortly after the war,” she later recalled, “and there were
airplanes going over all the time. I read everything I could get my
hands on about aviating. Some of the libraries wouldn’t let black girls
who picked cotton borrow books, but the books I wanted were about
piloting and folks were so surprised they let me have them anyway.”

From
there, Coleman went from one of the new flying schools to another, but
was turned down as quickly as she asked. There were, of course, two
reasons why Coleman couldn’t find anyone to teach her to fly. In
Chicago in 1919 and 1920, her race was an obvious reason. In America,
her sex was another. The doors were closed to young Bessie Coleman.

It
was not so in France. In 1789, a year after the Montgolfiers flew their
balloon, Madame Thibaud thrilled Paris with her flights, and another
French woman became so adept that Napoleon made her one of the chiefs
of his air service. And in 1909, only six years after the Wrights’
flight, still another French woman, the Baroness Raymonde de la Roche,
became the first woman pilot. They were Coleman’s inspiration, and two
years later, an American woman by the name of Harriet Quimby, an early
idol of Coleman’s, entered the field of aviation. Quimby’s career was
cut short by a fatal accident little more than a year later.

Her
death was a sad first, to be followed by the deaths of Laura Browell
and others who died early in the history of aviation. And even though
the Stinson sisters, Katherine and Marjory, trained Army pilots during
World War I, flying was still considered a man’s game. The deaths of
the women pilots–even though men were being killed at the same
rate–gave rise to self-righteous objections and patronizing warnings.
“It would be well to exclude women,” one national newspaper said, “from
a field of activity in which their presence is unnecessary from any
point of view.” Coleman’s own family pretty much agreed with this
widespread opinion and they never stopped trying to talk her out of
flying.

But Bessie Coleman was not to be denied. She met this, like all the obstacles in her life, the same way — head on.

“I
was black, I was female, and I wanted to fly. We used to pick cotton in
Texas, and I’d look up and think, If we’re going to better ourselves,
we’ve got to get above these cotton fields.”

Her persistence
finally led her to Robert S. Abbott, then editor and publisher of the
Chicago Weekly Defender. Abbott, captivated by the thought of a black
woman pilot, did some investigating for Coleman and found that the
French still possessed a kind of “aeromania” and were more liberal in
their attitudes toward women and “people of color.” On his advice, she
learned French at a language school on Chicago’s Loop. Abbott helped
her contact an aviation school in France. With the savings from her
manicurist’s job and working in a chili parlor, Coleman made two trips
to Europe. She had found a flight school in Le Crotoy, France, and for
the next ten months, she walked each day to the school, where she
learned about the hazards of flight.

Aircraft were fragile
and students who cracked up were often killed. Coleman saw more than
one of her fellow students die. But the shock was not enough to deter
the girl from the East Texas cotton patch. She signed a waiver of
relief in case of her own death and persisted in her goal.

When
Coleman returned to New York in the latter part of 1921, she had earned
her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She was
the only licensed black woman pilot in the world.

The Aerial
Age Weekly, October 17, 1921, took note. “Miss Bessie Coleman,” it
said, “a colored girl of Chicago, twenty-four years old, who had been
studying aviation in France for ten months, arrived in New York
recently on the American liner Manchuria. She brought her credentials
from the French certifying that she had qualified as an aviatrix.

“Miss
Coleman, who is having a special Nieuport scout plane built for her in
France, said yesterday that she intended to make flights in this
country as an inspiration for people of her race to take up aviation.”

Her
primary goal was to open a flying school for young black men in her
country. She also knew that unless someone with money and vision helped
her with her goal, she would have to finance the school herself. Ever
the realist, she went to work.

At her first air show at
Curtiss Field that Labor Day weekend in 1922, Coleman demonstrated a
flair for showmanship when she appeared before the crowd in her
military-type uniform, complete with puttees and a Sam Brown belt. She
wanted to look like other daredevil pilots of the era.

But
six weeks later, she topped that performance with one at Chicago’s
Checkerboard Aerodrome, known today as Midway Airport. Crowds were
milling about far in advance of the designated three o’clock starting
time.

In a series of four ten-minute flights, Coleman
performed a perfect Richthofen glide and the familiar loop-the-loops.
But onlookers were alarmed when it looked as though Coleman had lost
control during the execution of a figure eight. To everyone’s relief,
she brought the great Curtiss plane into a beautiful finish. It was
this sort of spirit and courage that earned Coleman the name, “Brave
Bessie.”

From then on, Coleman was in great demand. In
Boston, she did loops over the spot in the Charles River where Harriet
Quimby had been killed, flying planes such as the Curtiss JN-4D and
Army surplus aircraft left over from the war.

After other
exhibitions in the Chicago area, far away from the cotton patches of
her youth, she decided it was time to return. She headed south. With
Houston as her base of operations, she began a successful barnstorming
career. Between flights, she dazzled crowds in movie houses and
churches with her accounts of aerial adventures.

In Austin,
she was entertained by Governor Ma Ferguson, and she flew exhibitions
in her home town of Waxahachie. She knew that some people regarded her
as a curiosity, and she also knew that part of her attraction was the
ever-present danger of flying.

At one performance in Wharton,
Texas, a woman parachutist failed to show and the crowd began clamoring
for its money back. We’ll never know if it was a strict business
decision or if it was an act of extraordinary courage. But we do know
Bessie made the jump herself. She always did what she thought had to be
done. Sometime later, during an air race from San Diego to Long Beach,
California, Coleman got lost in the cloud deck. She landed (without
lights, of course) in an open field near her destination.

And
it was also in California, in the early ’20s, that Coleman had her
first accident. She was advertising for the Coast Tire and Rubber
Company when she crashed shortly after takeoff. Lying in the hospital
bed with several broken ribs, a broken leg, and multiple lacerations,
Coleman directed a reporter to “tell the world I’m coming back.” It
took her a year to make good on that promise.

She returned to
Chicago, where she rented an apartment at Forty-Second and South
Parkway. She took her furniture out of storage and soon was living a
“normal” life, away from the perils of flying. But life for Coleman was
never routine or dull. She entertained, among others, a prince from
Africa, Prince Kojo, conversing easily in French. She shared with him,
and anybody else who would listen, her dream of a flying school. Help
was not forthcoming, however, and she headed for Orlando, Florida, to
take up where she left off, stuntflying, barnstorming, keeping in touch
with members of her family. From Florida she wrote optimistically that
“I’m on the threshold of opening a school.”

Then in the
spring of 1926, Coleman was asked to perform at the annual celebration
of the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. Her flight from
Dallas with William Wills was interrupted by two forced landings
because of aircraft malfunctions. Wills was Coleman’s newly acquired
mechanic and publicity manager and he was to fly with her during
exhibitions.

A familiar sight greeted Coleman as she and
Wills approached Faxon Field the morning of April 30. A Ferris wheel,
recently erected and newly painted, hot dog tables and lemonade stands
under striped awnings.

And that day, Coleman saw an old
friend, editor Robert Abbott, in a Jacksonville restaurant. Those who
were there remembered later Bessie’s effusive praise for this man who
had given her her start in aviation. And they remembered that Abbott,
as if he had some premonition, advised Coleman not to carry out her
plans for a test flight after the maintenance checks on her plane.

But
Coleman had promised John Besch, a young graduate student from Howard
University, a ride in her plane after the trial flights. Besch drove
Coleman to the airfield and watched as she prepared for takeoff.

Ten
minutes into the test flight, with Wills piloting, the plane went into
a nose-dive maneuver from 3,000 feet. At 2,000 feet, the aircraft
suddenly flipped over and Coleman fell to her death. For some reason
Coleman, who had always been extremely safety conscious, was not
wearing a seat belt or a parachute.

Wills, who was strapped in, fell with the plane and died instantly on impact, about 1,800 feet from where Coleman’s body lay.

Minutes
after the plane hit the ground, while police were trying to extricate
Wills’ body, Besch, distraught after the crash, lit a cigarette and
unconsciously tossed his match to the ground, igniting spilled
gasoline. The wreckage went up in flames.

Later, it was found that a loose wrench had jammed the plane’s controls.

At
7:30 p.m., April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman’s life and unlikely career
came to an end. Spectators who came to see a show instead filed through
Lawton L. Pratt’s modest funeral home by the hundreds to say a last
farewell to “Brave Bessie.” After her funeral, her body was returned to
Chicago for burial in Lincoln Cemetery.

Shortly after her
death, Bessie Coleman aero groups were organized by William J. Powell
and on Labor Day, 1931, the flying clubs sponsored the first all-black
air show in America, an event that attracted 15,000 spectators.

Coleman’s
dream of a school for black aviators finally became a reality in 1932.
Powell urged black youth of the Depression era to “carve out their own
destiny.” He later wrote, “Because of Bessie Coleman . . . we have
overcome the barriers within ourselves and have dared to dream.”

Each
year, on the anniversary of her death, black pilots fly over her grave
and drop flowers in her honor. On her gravestone, in the style of the
’20s, is a tinted photograph of Bessie in her military-style flying
uniform. To an unknowing passerby, she might appear to have been just
another member of that daredevil fraternity that ushered in the Age of
Aviation.

Today, we know she was one of a kind

Editor’s note:
Earlier this year, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago renamed a
thoroughfare at O’Hare International Airport Bessie Coleman Drive in
belated recognition of her unique place in American aviation. Bessie’s
niece, Marion, was there and proudly passed the press clipping on to
Code One. Marion is steadfast in her dream to have Bessie’s picture on
a postage stamp one day.

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