What a journey it has been! When I came up with the idea to write about Black Americans for Black History Month, I thought that I would focus on those women who made a statement in history. I decided to let inspiration take me where it would and I wound up writing about all men so far. From the creator of Black History Month, to the first black fighter pilot, to a man that fought for the rights of blacks, women and the Irish, and finally to the first Black American to play baseball in the major leagues.
For the final week of Black History Month of 2016, I’m going to blog about Bessie Coleman. What was the inspiration this time? I thought back to what my original plan for the Black History Month 2016 blog was and started researching. My interest in aviation drew me to looking at women pilots. When I started reading about Bessie Coleman, I found out there are many similarities between her and Eugene Bullard’s experiences in life and in Aviation. Then I was even more intrigued. Bullard was the first black fighter pilot that I blogged about earlier this month. Coleman and Bullard both broke through the color line, Bullard as a fighter pilot and Coleman as a woman barnstorming pilot. They both were forced to go to France to escape from the discrimination here in the US to do what they wanted to do, Bullard to make a life for himself in a place where he would be respected. Coleman went there to learn how to fly which gave her the tools to pursue her three life goals.
According to AvStop.com, Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, the 12th of 13 children. Her father, being part Indian, moved back to the Indian territory when Bessie was only seven, leaving her Mom to raise four daughters and a son. To support the family, her Mom picked cotton and took in laundry. The children all helped out and their mom encouraged them to learn as much as they could. Bessie would pick out books from the traveling library to read to her family in the evenings. This is where her quest for knowledge had begun.
Bessie finished high school and attended one semester of college before she had to drop out due to lack of finances. She moved back home for a short stint then headed to Chicago. She had a hard time finding a flight school in the United States that would teach a black person how to fly, much less a woman. So, she did some odd jobs to earn money for a trip to France, where they would teach her.
Part of her drive to fly was due to something her brother had told her. He said that there were many French women already flying planes, and because of her gender and race, she would never be allowed to fly. She eventually earned the money and took French lessons before heading over to France to learn how to fly in a Nieuport Biplane. While in France, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Upon his recovery from being seriously wounded in battle, he volunteered for the French Air Service and received pilot’s license #6950 on May 5, 1917. Bessie proved her brother wrong when she returned to the United States in 1921 as the first black woman pilot to earn a license.
After attaining goal number one, she would now be chasing goal number two, to become a recognized stunt and exhibition flier. Barnstorming was popular in the Roaring ’20s and was the main avenue for women pilots to pursue. It was a form of entertainment where stunt pilots performed aerial tricks. Some of these pilots went from airshow to airshow performing tricks and giving airplane rides to make a living. Again, since no one in the US would teach her the advance skills needed to be a stunt pilot, she went back to France in February of 1922 to complete the advanced flying course. Shortly after she got the training needed, she came back to the US and during Labor Day weekend in 1922 she made her first appearance in an airshow.
Her third goal was to establish a flying school where young black Americans could receive training. She started raising the funds by doing lectures and flying in airshows. In a letter to her sister, Bessie said that she was on the threshold of making this goal a reality too. But, on April 30, 1926 the day before an airshow she was going to fly in, Bessie and her mechanic, William Willis, went to do a test flight. William had some concerns while he flew the plane from Texas to Florida for the show and wanted to check things out. While doing an aerial maneuver, a wrench got caught in the flight controls, which caused it to roll and toss Bessie out of the airplane. Her mechanic was also killed when the plane subsequently crashed into the ground. Due to her death, she would not realize her final goal.
She achieved some things that most people at the time wouldn’t have been able to. Add into the equation that she was a black woman, made what she did even more remarkable. Through her accomplishments, she also became a positive role model for young girls. Her perserverance in battling discrimination helped to pave the way for other woman pilots to achieve their dream to fly, whether they were black or not.
Blogging in honor of Black History Month this year has opened my eyes to the different battles that many blacks had to fight to get where they wanted to be in life. Many people have fought against discrimination to achieve their goals when they are living in a country where they are a minority. Our country’s history seems to have made that achieving more for yourself harder on some, just because they are different.
With all of the different people in this country, we have the ability and resources to do some amazing things. We just need to support and respect each other, regardless of the color of our skin or the language that we speak.