One benefit in researching local history is the discovery of East Texans who through the years have played a major role in history often beyond Texas – those you might call East Texas Notables. And one of these was Bessie Coleman, who was not only a pioneer woman pilot but also the first African American and Native American woman flyer.
Unfortunately, a tragic plane crash ended her career, but her life was enough of an inspiration that in 1992 when astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to travel into space she carried a picture of Bessie Coleman.
Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman was one of twelve children and daughter of a domestic worker and a sharecropper of Black and Cherokee heritage. However, when Bessie was two-years-old the family moved to Waxahachie where they continued to work as sharecroppers. When she was six she began to attend a segregated one room school where she stood out as a math student. Each year her daily activities of school, church and chores was interrupted by the cotton harvest, when everyone pitched in to help.
Then in 1901 her father decided to move to Oklahoma (then known as Indian Territory) to escape society’s restrictions for Blacks, but his wife decided to remain in Texas with her children. There she continued to work as a domestic.
After finishing her schooling, Bessie followed her brothers to Chicago and found a job in a barbershop as a manicurist. Then in 1919 her brother, who had served in WWI in France, mentioned that women there had greater opportunities than American women – and that included flying planes, Bessie decided to become a pilot, but this meant traveling to France and there in 1921 she received her pilot’s license. When she returned to the U.S. he was a media sensation.
Then to make a living as a pilot, like many fliers did in those days. She became a ”barnstormer,” a stunt pilot who traveled around, selling rides and performing flying feats for audiences who had probably never seen an airplane before.
As she did this Bessie found she attracted crowds who came to see something rare – a female pilot who was also Black. However, doing such stunts sometimes proved dangerous such as at one show when in 1923 near Los Angeles her plane stalled and nosedived 300 feet to the ground, destroying her craft and leaving her with broken bones and rib fractures. Though she pleaded with the attending medics to “Patch me up so I can get back in the show!” she was transported to a hospital. Still optimistic and defiant, she sent a telegram to her fans: “Tell them that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” That she did – after months of rehabilitation she was back in the air.
Besides her flying, Coleman also addressed audiences, encouraging them and particularly African Americans, to embrace not just aviation but the challenge of accomplishing their goals. She also refused to appear where there were racial restrictions for the audience. Yet at times she realized that that didn’t work, such as one appearance in Texas when the promoters wanted there to be two entrances – Black and White. Bessie objected and it was changed, so though the spectators entered through one gate they sill sat in separate sections., She was widely admired for admired for insisting on at least some concession.
At one point Coleman was scheduled to appear in a silent film, appearing as herself in a picture that was financed by a Black company. She hoped the publicity and funds would help her open her own flying school. However, when she learned that the first scene had her appear in tattered clothes she saw that as a stereotype of Black poverty and she rejected the part.
Then in April, 1926 at a Jacksonville, Florida air show Coleman and her mechanic and fellow pilot William D. Wills took off with him at the controls. After ten minutes in the air, the plane suddenly began to dive and spin out at 3000 feet. On the way down Coleman was thrown clear and died immediately on impact, while Wills, who couldn’t regain control, died when the plane crashed. There followed an explosion and the flames destroyed the wreckage. Her Chicago funeral attracted more than 10,000 mourners.
As a native of East Texas, Bessie Coleman was indeed an aviation pioneer for both her race and her gender, as she served as an example to women of all races to dream and to achieve!
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.