(Click on “Queen Bess” Below: to Read Wikipedia Full Biography)
AN EXCEPTIONAL LADY
By Captain Nancy Aldrich
I guess we all have our heros and heroines. I certainly do, and this lady is one of mine. Most of the women pilots already know her story, but the rest of you need to know about her. Bessie Colman went from a little girl in very sad circumstances to a fantastic example to everyone, not just women!
She was born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the 10th of 13 children, to Susan and George Colman. George was Native American, and Susan was African American. They lived in a one roomed, dirt floor cabin. They were illiterate and worked as sharecroppers. Bessie was born into a very poor family that faced many disadvantages and difficulties, such as racism, segregation, and violence.
When Bessie was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas. Her father was able to save a little money and buy a quarter acre of land and build a house for his family. In 1901, George felt that his family would be better off if he took them and returned to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. He believed he could carve out a much better living for them there, but Susan did not want to live on a reservation. George left and went back to his home in Oklahoma, leaving Susan with the family.
Susan insisted that her children go to school and learn to read. Bessie loved to read and borrowed books from a traveling library. She especially like to read Bible stories to her mother and siblings. The children walked four miles to a one room school that closed when the they were needed to pick cotton in the fields. She attended school through the 8th grade, studied hard and made good grades. After graduating she went to work as a laundress. She saved her money until 1910 so she could move to Oklahoma and attend Langston University (then, the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University). After one year, she was out of money and returned to Waxahachie to again work as a laundress.
Bessie was a very intelligent and ambitions young woman. Working as a laundress in a small Texas town was not what she wanted out of life. She wanted to “make something of herself.” Two older brothers, Walter and John, had moved to Chicago and encouraged her to move there and live with them. In 1915, she did just that. She was able to get a good job working as a manicurist in the White Sox Barbershop. But, still she dreamed of something more.
While working in the barbershop, she heard stories about the pilots returning from World War I, and was intrigued. Her brother John had served overseas, and told her stories about the war. She learned about flying by watching newsreels, and was fascinated by the flying. John loved to tease her about flying, telling her that French women flew airplanes, but that she never could. She decided to apply to flying schools, but all turned her down because of her race. While it was difficult for any woman to be accepted by a flight school, but no school would accept an African American student, male or female. Bessie would not give up on her dream!
She became acquainted with Robert S. Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. He encouraged her to save her money and go to France where her race would not be a factor. She was able to quit her job as a manicurist and began working as the manager at a Chili Parlor, a much more lucrative position. She also received backing from a banker, Jesse Binga, and the Chicago Defender to pursue her dream.
After taking a Berlitz course in French at night, she went to France in November, 1920. She attended the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation, in Le Crotoy, France. She took lessons in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, and earned her license on June 15, 1921, becoming the first black woman in the world to be a licensed pilot. She received an International license issued by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. That was not enough for her. She continued taking lessons to hone her skills and flew around Europe, gaining experience.
She returned to New York in September, 1921 and was a media sensation. It was her idea to make a living in aviation and to establish the first African American flight school. However, she quickly realized that making a living as a pilot was not going to be an easy thing. Both her race and her gender were against her. She would have to participate in stunt flying and ‘barnstorming.’ This was a very competitive field with many more experienced pilots returning from the war. She would need to learn aerobatic maneuvers.
Even with her license in her pocket and her wide acclaim, she could find no one to teach her the advanced maneuvers she needed. She decided to return to France in February of 1922. She took an advanced course in aviation, then travelled to the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, a well recognized aircraft designer. She visited the Fokker Corporation, in Germany, and took training from one of their pilots. When she returned to the United States, she had the confidence she needed to compete in exhibition stunt flying.
Over the next few years she flew Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) biplanes and army surplus planes. She became very popular and was known as Queen Bess by her admirers. Her first airshow appearance in America was at Curtiss Field on Long Island, in New York. It was sponsored by her friend Abbot, and the Chicago Defender, and was to honor veterans of the all-black 369 Infantry Regiment from WWI. It was also to spotlight her skills. She was billed as, “the world’s greatest woman flier!” Later she returned to Chicago with a stunning demonstration of stunt flying before a large and enthusiastic crowd at Checkerboard Airdrome, which is now Chicago Midway Airport.
She was very popular and in demand. She traveled the country giving exhibitions, flight lessons, and lectures. She tried to promote African American women and encouraged them to learn to fly.
She gained a reputation as a pilot who would stop at nothing to perform difficult and intricate maneuvers. At a show in Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed, in 1923. It took her almost a year to recover from her injuries, but that did not stop her, she continued to fly airshows and barnstorm around the country.
Bessie tried to use her popularity and fame to challenge racial barriers. In June, 1925, she performed at an airshow in Houston, at Aerial Transport Field. The show was well attended by both blacks and whites. Shortly after that show, she returned to her hometown of Waxahachie for an exhibition. The promoters wanted separate admission gates for blacks and whites. She would not hear of it! She refused to perform under those conditions. The promoters allowed a single entrance for both races, but once inside, there were in separate segregated seating areas.
She was offered a role in a feature length movie, Shadow and Sunrise. She was excited, thinking the publicity would advance her career. When she was told that in the beginning scene she would be shown in ragged and tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she walked off the set. She was considered by many to be opportunistic, but she would not compromise her principles and denigrate her race. The historian, Doris Rich wrote, “Clearly, walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunistic as she was about her career, she was never opportunistic about her race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”
Still, she was not satisfied. Her dream had always been to, “amount to something.” She wanted to start a flight school for young black aviators. That dream was never fulfilled. While preparing for an airshow in which she would parachute out of her airplane, she was not able to pull the airplane out of a dive. The airplane went into a spin. At approximately 2,000 ft, she was thrown out of the airplane and died instantly when she hit the ground. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was in the airplane with her. He was not able to gain control and also died when the airplane hit the ground and burst into flames. It was later determined that a wrench had been left unsecured and slid into the gear box, jamming the controls. She was 34 years old.
While she was never able to see her dream of flight schools for African Americans, Bessie Colman Aero Clubs began to spring up all over America. On Labor Day, 1931 the clubs sponsored the first all-black airshow, with 15,000 spectators.
While her career was too short, she had a huge influence, and was able to challenge the early 20th century stereotypes of race and gender. She proved that blacks and women were not inferior and could compete successfully with whites. Color and gender should not stop anyone from realizing their dreams and enjoying success in their chosen field.
In my opinion, Bessie Colman is a true heroine. Against all odds she followed her dream and “made something of herself.” She should be an inspiration to anyone who has almost insurmountable obstacles. She learned French, saved her money, travelled to France, worked hard, studied hard, and never quit. She was quite an exceptional lady!