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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Black History Month - Bessie Coleman - 2/12

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman is the first African American to hold an international pilot's license. The fact that she's a woman, in a time when virtually all aviators were men, makes her achievements all that more remarkable. 
Coleman and her plane

Born in 1892, in the Jim Crow South, Coleman was the 10th of thirteen children.  Her father was a sharecropper in Atlanta, Texas, and also part Cherokee. Coleman attend a one-room school house, but also participated in the cotton harvest.  Unfortunately, her father returned to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), abandoning his family when she was just 9.

At age 23, Coleman, like many African Americans in the period of 1910-1930, moved North in what was known as the 1st Great Migration.  Settling in Chicago, Bessie Coleman was one of 1.6 million migrants who left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern and Midwestern industrial cities.

She was inspired to fly by the stories of pilots returning from World War I.  However, nobody, not even African American pilots would train her.  In the end, she was trained in France in 1921, earning that international pilot's license.

From there, Bessie began working in air shows.  She truly enjoyed stunt flying.  Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. However, when she learned that a scene in the film took a stereotypically racist view, she left the film.

In 1926, while preparing for an air show, Coleman's manager and she had a flight accident.  Looking over the edge of the cockpit, not wearing her seat belt  Coleman was preparing for a parachute jump.  When the plane began to spin out of a dive, Coleman was thrown from the plane.  She fell to her death from 2000 feet.  The pilot that day, William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane. He died upon impact. The plane became an inferno.  Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.

To learn more, hear what our pals, Sarah and Deblina at The Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast had to say about The Daredevil Aviatrix: Bessie Coleman.

Coleman's International Flight License

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