by Pamela S. Meyers
|Resource: Chicago Tribune
My book Rose Harbor’s heroine is a female WWII-era pilot, and when I learned that Bessie Coleman was a pilot long before WWII, I was intrigued. Born in Texas in 1892, the tenth of thirteen children born to sharecroppers; her father an African American, and her mother Cherokee and African American.
Bessie knew she’d have a struggle working her way out of poverty, but she was a determined girl and managed to squeak out one year of college before her money dried up. At age 23, she joined some of her brothers in Chicago, Illinois and worked as a manicurist at a barbershop. WWI was just over and many returning war pilots frequented the barbershop telling stories about flying during wartime. She yearned to do the same but back then it was difficult for a woman to be taken seriously when applying to flying school, let alone a black woman.
Resource: Chicago Tribune
Challenged by her brother, saying she’d never learn to fly, after hearing how women in France were attending pilot schools, she enrolled in a French language course and the next year, headed to Paris. She received financial support for her endeavor from Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender. A newspaper that catered to the black community. In France, she entered one of the premier aviation schools of the time. Aviation was not for the faint of heart back then and each student in the school had to sign a release of liability that the school wouldn’t be held liable if they were injured or killed while being trained.
Dr. Neal Gale, Ph.D. reports on his website: “On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first Negro and American Indian woman to earn an aviation pilot's license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States." He quotes Coleman: “The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
When Bessie returned to the states with her pilot's license, the only way she could earn a living by flying was to become a stunt flyer. It would be years before passenger planes would make an appearance. In 1924, she purchased a used two-seater aircraft in Dallas, then paid William Wills, a mechanic, to fly the plane from Dallas to where she'd moved in Florida. Bessie had already opened a beauty parlor there to finance the air shows she hoped to put on.
Her first show using her new plane was to be over the Jacksonville, Florida race track. She and Wills took the plane over the track to get a feel for things. She didn’t fasten her seatbelt and had opened her window to practice climbing out on the wing for her stunt which involved her parachuting to the ground. The plane stalled and went into a spin, throwing Coleman out of the plane. She died on impact.
The plane crash killed Wills instantly. Her remains were brought to Chicago for her funeral and burial. Not only is an access road to O’Hare Field named for her, but a number of other tributes and honors have been named for her, including a street in Germany, as well as a Chicago public library. Additionally, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor in 1995.You can see the entire list of her accomplishments during her short life by going to The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal at 3s1Bf (DRLIH)
The next time I drive to O’Hare Airport and see Bessie’s name on the street sign, I will know she was one incredible lady. Wouldn't she be amazed to see how large O’Hare Field is and all the jets that land and take off from there?
Have you ever learned something surprising about someone from the past who lived where you do now?
The Digital Research Library of Illinois History JournalT. (see link above).
Chicago Tribune; Ron Grossman, That Road O’Hare is On? It’s named for Bessie Coleman, who 100 Years ago became the first black woman pilot in America, November 24, 2021.
Pam Meyers's historical novels are set in her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She loved growing up in the popular vacation getaway small town, but never really appreciated the beauty and history of the lake and area until she was grown.
She currently lives in northern IL, with her two rescue cats, grateful she's only about an hour away from Lake Geneva.
Pam's books are available at Amazon in Kindle or Print, and at local stores in the Lake Geneva area.