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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

AIR PIONEER

by Bob Bowman

Texas Aviation Hall of Famer
In 1921 she became the only black pilot in the world. A year later she became the first black woman to fly over American soil.
Bob Bowman
This month, as America commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight, East Texas is quietly remembering another pioneer who set an aviation milestone.

Born at Atlanta in Cass County, Bessie Coleman was an unlikely trend-setter for her time. She was a woman, a black and had none of the resources of others who followed the Wrights into aviation history.

Bessie was the sixth of ten children in the Atlanta home of George and Susan Coleman. The Colemans moved to Waxahachie where George left the family, leaving his wife to raise Bessie and three sisters. The family survived by picking cotton, doing laundry and cooking for white households. But Bessie yearned for more. She finished eight grades at a one-room school and attended a term at a college in Oklahoma.

She was picking cotton when the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but in 1915, at the age of 23, she moved from Texas to Chicago to live with a brother and pursue a chance "to amount to something." Convinced she wanted to fly, she saved money to travel to France for flying lessons at the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and in 1921 she became the only black pilot in the world. A year later she became the first black woman to fly over American soil.

Bessie soon became a role model, not only for blacks and women, but for others who admired her tenacity and endurance.

She barnstormed, performed sky stunts and flew crop dusters to earn money to establish her own flying school -- a dream that died with her in 1926 when she crashed the first plane of her own, a $400 Jenny.

On April 30 in Jacksonville, Florida, she and her mechanic took the Jenny up for a test flight. The aircraft malfunctioned and the mechanic, who was piloting from the front seat, lost control. Bessie fell from the open cockpit several hundred feet to her death.

More than 5,000 people attended her memorial services in Chicago and another 10,000 filed past her coffin to pay their last respects.

Only after her death did Bessie receive the recognition she desired. Her dream of a flying school for African Americans was fulfilled when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero club in Los Angeles. Influenced by the Aero Club, hundreds of black aviators -- including the Flying Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, and the Tuskegee Airmen -- continued to make Bessie's dream a reality.

In 1977, more than fifty years after her death, women pilots in the Chicago area established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.

The ensuing years brought additional accolades. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley redesignated a road at O'Hare Airport as Bessie Coleman Drive in 1990 and in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Bessie's honor, commemorating "her singular accomplishment in becoming the world's first African American pilot and, by definition, an American legend."

In 2000, the little black girl from Atlanta who dreamed of a better life was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame and, in Atlanta, the main road to the town's airport also bears the name, Bessie Coleman Drive.

Bob Bowman
All Things Historical
December 14, 2003 column
(All Things Historical is distributed as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is a past president of the Association and the author of 30 books about East Texas.)

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