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Overlooked No More: Bessie Coleman, Pioneering African-American Aviatrix

In 1921 Coleman became the first black woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license, then barnstormed around the country thrilling audiences and inspiring later generations.

By Daniel E. Slotnik

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, thrilling crowds by performing dangerous maneuvers in a rickety airplane and representing, literally, the heights that African-Americans could attain.

But before all that, she was working as a manicurist on Chicago’s South Side in 1919 when her brother John showed up drunk one day and began taunting her about her job. John had served in the Army in France during World War I and often teased his sister about how women there had more opportunities. Women in France were so liberated, he said, they could even fly planes.

Black “women ain’t never goin’ to fly, not like those women I saw in France,” he said, as retold in “Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator” (1993), a biography of Coleman by Doris L. Rich.

“That’s it!” Coleman replied, smiling. “You just called it for me.”

Determined to prove him wrong, Coleman reached out to several pilots for lessons, but none would accept her as a student. So she decided to go to France, where she thought her race and gender would not be insurmountable impediments.

To prepare for the trip, Coleman studied French, solicited benefactors to help finance the venture and found a higher-paying job managing a chili restaurant. On Nov. 20, 1920, she set off for Europe aboard the liner S.S. Imperator, then enrolled at the flight school founded by the aviation pioneers Gaston and René Caudron at Le Crotoy in the Somme in northern France.

There she began a seven-month course in flying a Nieuport Type 82, a 27-foot-long biplane with a 40-foot wingspan. The plane was fragile, and Coleman had to inspect every part of it each time she went aloft.

The Type 82 in which Coleman trained had one cockpit for an instructor and another behind it for a student. There was no steering wheel; there weren’t even brakes. The instructor, and soon Coleman, handled a large wooden stick to control the plane’s pitch and roll, and moved a rudder bar with his feet to control its yaw. To stop the plane, the pilot would land, then drag a metal skid on the tail along the ground.

Coleman learned aerial maneuvers like loop-the-loops, banking and tail spins. She also witnessed an accident that killed another student.

“It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them,” Coleman was quoted as saying in “Queen Bess.” “I kept going.”

On June 15, 1921, Coleman received her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an organization that oversees airborne sports. The license granted her the right to fly anywhere in the world.

Upon her return to New York City in September, The Associated Press heralded her as “a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race.”

Coleman began barnstorming the country in 1922. She dazzled spectators by walking on the wings while aloft or parachuting from the plane while a co-pilot took the controls. Her stunts were widely covered in the press, especially in black newspapers, and she cut a glamorous figure.

She enjoyed the attention so much that she decided to try acting and was cast as the lead in a film based on her life story. But she turned down the part after learning that the movie began with her character appearing in rags, which she found demeaning and undignified. “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!” she told Billboard magazine.

Coleman saw aviation as a way to empower black people in America and dreamed of opening a flight school. She never did, but future pilots said they had been inspired by her, and flight clubs have been named in her honor.

“I shall never be satisfied until we have men of the Race who can fly,” she told the black newspaper The Chicago Defender in 1921, adding, “We must have aviators if we are to keep pace with the times.”

Coleman borrowed planes at first, but in time she saved up enough to buy one of her own, a military surplus Curtiss JN-4, known informally as the Jenny. Coleman went to Santa Monica, Calif., to pick it up.

While in California she planned to perform an air show near Los Angeles, but as she took off to fly to the fairgrounds, her motor stalled, and she nose-dived from 300 feet, breaking a leg, fracturing her ribs and destroying her plane. She begged the doctor at the scene to “patch her up” so that she could get to the show. He called for an ambulance.

“Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” Coleman wrote in a telegram to her fans.

It took her months to recover, and it was two years before she was flying regularly again.

Coleman lived in Chicago and then Houston, staging air shows all around Texas but increasingly spending time on the lecture circuit, a safer and more remunerative way to make a point about social uplift.

By April 1926, Coleman had saved enough money to buy another plane — another surplus Jenny. She scheduled an air show for May 1, and on April 30 she and her co-pilot, a mechanic named William Wills, took a practice flight in the new plane. Coleman sat in the second cockpit, unharnessed so that she could peer over the side and identify a good place for a parachute landing during the show.

Wills flew the plane at about 2,000 feet for five minutes, then climbed to 3,500 feet. Witnesses said the plane accelerated suddenly, nose-dived, went into a tailspin and flipped upside-down about 500 feet in the air. Coleman fell from the plane and plunged to the ground, dying on impact. She was 34. The plane also crashed, killing Wills, his body pinned under the plane. As rescuers tried to move the plane off him, one lit a match for a cigarette, igniting gas fumes and wreathing the wreckage in flame.

The mainstream press barely noted Coleman’s death, focusing instead on Wills, who was white. But many black newspapers gave front-page coverage to her death.

Coleman’s body lay in state in Florida and in Chicago, where about 10,000 people paid their respects. The journalist Ida B. Wells, who crusaded against lynching, led the ceremonies.

Bessie Coleman (she sometimes used the name Elizabeth) was born in Atlanta, Tex., on Jan. 26, 1892, to Susan and George Coleman. Her parents worked as day laborers, farmers and cotton pickers. George Coleman managed to save enough money to buy a plot of land in Waxahachie, Tex., in 1894 and built a shotgun house, where he and his wife had several more children.

In 1901 George, who was part Native American, left for Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where he thought he could avoid the racial oppression in Jim Crow Texas. He asked Susan and the children to come with him, but Susan chose to stay in Waxahachie and raise four of their children by herself, earning money as a domestic worker.

Coleman studied in a one-room schoolhouse and, like many families in Waxahachie, picked cotton when the crop was ripe, work that she hated. She left Texas in 1910 to enroll in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Okla., but she ran out of money and returned home after only a semester.

In 1915 she moved to Chicago and became a manicurist. By night she went to clubs in the Stroll, the center of Chicago’s black community, where she saw performances by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and other luminaries.

On Jan. 30, 1917, she married Claude Glenn, who was 14 years her senior.

Coleman’s story has been told in books, television programs, a French documentary and, earlier this year, an irreverent episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” with the actress and comedian Lyric Lewis. In 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in Coleman’s memory as part of its black heritage series. A middle school in Texas and several roads around the country, usually near airports, bear Coleman’s name.

But it took time for Coleman to achieve recognition beyond the black community in her day. Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first African-American woman to go into space, wrote in an afterword to “Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator” that she had felt “embarrassed and saddened that I did not learn of her until my spaceflight beckoned on the horizon.”

“I wished I had known her while I was growing up,” Jemison continued, “but then again I think she was there with me all the time.”

In one way Coleman was indeed with her when she left the Earth. Jemison carried a picture of Coleman with her into space, flying far higher than Coleman had ever dreamed.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.