Bessie Coleman, Adventuress of Flight

“Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”(1)

images of Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart in their leather flight helmets.

One of my heroes (sheroes) has long been Amelia Earhart, aviatrix and fighter for women’s equality.  I admire her ability she had to go after her passions, despite the obstacles.  I adore what I know of the adventurous attitude she had.  Recently, and in light of all the global efforts to highlight black (and indigenous) lives, one of my favorite sources for learning new things, Atlas Obscura, re-shared an article they wrote in 2017, “Meet Bessie Coleman, the First Black Woman to Get a Pilot’s License.”  (Check the Resources section at the end for more on both women.)

What caught my eye wasn’t that Bessie was an African-Chocktaw-American woman.  (Did you know that Native Americans often were – and are- treated worse than many blacks?).  What caught my imagination was this phrase

“Men and women of color were not only seen as people who couldn’t fly—they were not supposed to fly. For Bessie Coleman, this was not a barrier. It was a challenge.” 

Barrier or obstacle

Not a barrier, but a challenge.  Sound familiar?  I like to say how having an adventure attitude guides you to turning obstacles into challenges to overcome.  But somehow, using the word “barrier” hit harder than an obstacle.  Amelia had obstacles to overcome being a woman in a man’s world.  Or let me re-phrase that.  A white woman in a white man’s world.  For Bessie, add on top of this, racial discrimination.  Barriers she turned into challenges, and overcame.

Amelia was able to get a flying lesson, a plane and a U.S pilot lesson without too much issue.  Even if people derided her for being such a tom-boy.  Bessie could not get any of these in America.  She had to work hard at a low paying job, have a savvy supporter, learn a second language to be able to go to a foreign country for lessons and license.  Not only that, but the first French school turned her down for being a woman.  (Does the phrase “Yet she persisted” come to mind for you?).

images of Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart's Internation Pilot License
Bessie apparently became the first American -of any race or gender – to get an International pilot license!

Did Bessie ever meet Amelia?

Now that I have two adventuresses as role models, I couldn’t help but wonder “Did these two ever meet?  They are so much alike!”  If you are more of a creative playwright than I am, I’d love to see a meeting of the two played out!  My guess is that Bessie may have known about Amelia.  Bessie did not get the same national press attention, so Amelia – quite possibly, may not have known about Bessie.  They also seemed to have traveled in different social circles.  Bessie was part of the Chicago/Harlem flapper scene and Amelia hung out more in the New York City white socialite scene.

In my research, I couldn’t find anything that showed the two aviatrixes’ having overlap, except that Bessie earned her International Pilot’s License two years prior to Amelia gaining hers.  To help get a better idea of their lives, I created a timeline for Bessie’s short life with Amelia’s highlights inserted (in bold type) at relevant frames.

Bessie Coleman Timeline

Born: 1/26/1892 Atlanta, TX

Amelia Mary Earhart, born 7/24/1897 Atchison, KS

1903 – Wright Brothers first flight (Bessie, age 11)

Bessie – finished high school and attended college. 

1910 – Attended one semester of college using saved money from laundress & cotton picking

Harriet Quimby became the first female pilot in the US to earn a pilot’s certificate in 1911. (Bessie, age 19)

1915- moved to Chicago and attended Burnham School of Beauty, to get better job than cleaning or factory work.  Became manicurist at White Sox Barber

1914-1918 – WWI (Bessie’s brothers went to war)

1919 – When pilots began to make headlines and pictures of WWI airplanes appeared regularly in magazines, Bessie toyed with the idea of flying as a way out for her and others like her. But when her brother John teasingly told her; “You n**r women ain’t never goin’ to fly, Not like those women I saw in France ” – she smiled at him and said; “That’s it – You just called it for me.”(1)

1919-1920 – Applied to American flight schools, all turned her down.  Took French lessons and applied to flight schools in France. 

November 20, 1920 – She was accepted to France’s most famous flight school – Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy (age 28)

December 28, 1920 – Amelia Earhart gets her first airplane ride (age 23)

January 3, 1921 – Amelia takes her first flying lesson (from Neta Snook, one of the first women to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation).

Licenses and Planes

June 15, 1921, when she received her international pilot’s license No. 18.310. She was the first American of any race or gender to be directly awarded credentials to pilot an airplane license from the Federation Aeronitique Internationale in France. To receive this license, she had to demonstrate high skill sets comprised of life-saving maneuvers including turning off the engine before touching down. (Age 29)

June 1921 – with money saved and with help from her mother & sister, Amelia buys her first plane. (Not quite 24 years old)

October 1921 – told Aerial Age Weekly that she “intended to make flights in this country as an inspiration for people of her race to take up aviation.” Bessie Coleman searched for employment and an airplane. However, again in America, she was continually rejected in her bids to purchase a plane and to gain employment in commercial aviation. Disheartened with America’s treatment, she still refused to give up.

December 1921 – Amelia receives her U.S. flying license. (age 24)

May– August 1922 Went back to Europe to further her skills.  Piloted in France, Germany, Holland, Netherlands and Switzerland. Earned credentials from Aero Club of France.  Bessie, having overcome the barrier of not being accepted to flight schools in America, decided she would start one for African Americans.

September 1922 – first black woman to fly a plane in public (Age 30)

October 1922 –Amelia sets an altitude record of 14,000 feet, a first for women (Age 25)

Bessie on a Mission

Bessie Coleman standing on one of her airplanes she used in barnstorming

February 1923 – bought her first plane: a surplus WWI military Jennie.  At her first show with the plane, she crashed (and survived).  From the hospital, she vowed to come back, determined to inspire other blacks into aviation.  While recovering, she started lecturing to earn money for her dreams. (Age 31)

May 16th, 1923 – Amelia receives her International pilot’s license (the 16th woman to do so), two years after Bessie received hers.  (Age 25)

June 1923 – moved back to Chicago, rested and enjoyed the life of a flapper.  She was friends with Josephine Baker (the internationally famous singer).  Josephine later went back to France and earned her own pilot’s license.

September 1923 – returned to her barnstorming performances, in front of an integrated crowd of 10,000.

May 19th 1925 – taking her barnstorming shows to the South, her first show in Houston, TX was on “Juneteenth.” Her performances and local lectures were all done to help her toward her goal of inspiring black people to dream bigger and to start a flight school.  While touring the South, she used her influence to make sure all people used the same entrance – no separate “colored” entrances for her shows.

Spring 1926 – A chewing gum heir and aviation buff made the final payment for her plane, since the first one was destroyed in the accident.  The plane, flown by her partner from Texas to Florida, made several unscheduled stops as the engine was old.

Died: 4/30/1926 (34 years old) During a test flight of her plane, and to check out the fields for the next day’s exhibition, the plane failed.  During the descent, the normally safety-conscious Bessie was not strapped in, and she fell to her death.  The plane was later found to have a loose wrench jamming the controls.

June 17-18, 1928 – Amelia becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean

May 20-21, 1932 – Amelia becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic

July 2, 1937 (39 years old) – Amelia (and co-pilot) go missing during an attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world.

Adventure Inspiration

These two women greatly inspire me.  Not to fly, but to face whatever obstacles come up when following my passions.  To have a mission that’s greater than the thrill of the ride.  What about you?  Do they inspire you to live a life with no regrets?

Resources

  1. Bessie Coleman website
  2. Atlas Obscura: Bessie Coleman Aviator
  3. Amelia Earhart website
  4. Sweet Blackberry Bessie Coleman Presentation Video
  5. The Legend: The Bessie Coleman Story (on Amazon Prime)
  6. The Daredevil that History Forgot (YouTube)
commemorative stamps of Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart

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