Who was Bessie Coleman?
Bessie Coleman was a pilot. When she was born in January 1892, it was several years before the Wright brothers even began to explore the possibility of flight. For Bessie, as a child, human flight was simply an unknown.
And yet she became a well-known pilot – the first woman of African-American descent to do so.
When she was older, and when flying was in its infancy, Bessie knew that this was what she wanted to do. She applied to several flying schools but was turned down because of her sex and her race.
Although the first woman to hold a pilot’s licence in America was Harriet Quimby in 1911, there was still a great deal of prejudice in the aviation world. It was seen as being the domain of men – white ones.
She was obliged to train in France, where female aviators were looked on with more understanding. She returned to the States in 1922 she did so as the only licenced black woman pilot in the world.
Making a living out of flying was the next hurdle
But who would employ her? In truth, there were few job vacancies for any pilots in those days and most made their living as travelling ‘barnstormers’ performing exhibition flights at fairs and carnivals. So this was what Bessie chose to do. She travelled the country performing and lecturing. It was her ambition to start a flying school (which would accept people of any gender or race) and worked hard to save money to achieve her goal.
She never shirked from making her feelings known. For example, she was once asked to fly at an air show where there were two entrances and two – one for blacks and one for whites. She refused to take part.
In April 1926, she arrived in Florida to take part in an air show. She had planned to hire a plane once she arrived. But she found that no-one would rent, lend or even sell an aircraft to a black woman.
She contacted her publicity manager, mechanic and sometime co-pilot, William Wills, and he found a rather battered ex-WW1 plane that he flew to Florida for her to use. He had to land twice on the journey because of engine problems.
On April 30th, 1926, the pair took off from Paxon Field at about 7.30 am to practice for the show the following day. Bessie wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because she was planning to do a parachute jump at the show and wanted to be able to look out over the plane at the ground below.
She was studying the area and looking out for suitable landing grounds. She would not have been able to do that had she been wearing a seat belt.
When the plane suddenly nose-dived she was thrown out and died on impact. Wills couldn’t control the plane and he too was killed when it plummeted to the ground.
The cause of the crash could not be investigated because the evidence was destroyed by a careless cigarette. An official attending the accident tossed away a cigarette butt that caused the plane – and Wills’ body – to be consumed by fire.
It was suspected however that a wrench had jammed into one of the plane’s instruments or controls.
Newspaper reporting in 1926
When I was looking into this story, I was surprised to see how strange newspaper reporting was back in those days.
You can see an example on the left.
You can see how Bessie was described in the headline. Surprisingly, the newspaper saw fit to point out in the sub-heading that her co-pilot was white. In capital letters.
Bessie was only mentioned once by name – thereafter she was referred to as ‘the woman’. Note that William Wills is referred to several times by his name and not referred to as ‘the man’. It is me or is there a somewhat condescending tone in the first sentence where it reads ‘Bessie Coleman was said to be….’
The final sentence seems to imply too that it was Bessie’s own fault that she fell from the plane. It could of course be argued that when the report was written, it was not then known that she wasn’t wearing a seat belt because she was looking out for suitable landing places for her intended parachute jump.
However,it may be that even had she been wearing it, the same might have happened.Contemporary reports claim that the aircraft was in very poor condition mechanically so it’s easy to assume that the seat belts were too.
In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. She took several small pieces of West African art objects to demonstrate that space belonged to everyone.
She also took with her a photograph of Bessie Coleman.
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