Flying Over the Glass Ceiling

The life and times of Bessie Coleman

Student Submission by Paul Fontenot, George Young, and David Freund representing UH Hilo’s History Club

A black and white photograph of Bessie Coleman in an aviation cap circa 1921

With Black History Month here once again, it is proper to look at some of the accomplishments and contributions to our nation and the world made by America’s minorities in general and African Americans in particular. When thinking of these accomplishments, figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fredrick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and a myriad of others come to mind. While these individuals and their contributions are objectively unparalleled, perhaps it is right that some of the lesser known figures in some of the lesser known fields receive some spotlight.

The world of aviation seems mystical to people today, but 100 years ago, it was mythos come-to-life. Most aircraft of those days were made of canvas and wood and could barely top 200 miles an hour. The most reliable machines, like the famed Sopwith Camel, were difficult to fly and spun out of control on takeoff, landing, and unpleasant weather. Every time you entered the cockpit, you were taking your life into your own hands. This would be enough to deter even the bravest of souls. Only the determined few would, in those days, make the skies their home.

Amelia Earhart challenged gender norms in the air and Charles Lindbergh pushed the boundaries of what human flight was capable. Bessie Coleman managed to do both while paving the way for people of all races to experience the miracle of flight. This Black History Month, the History Club would like to recognize Bessie Coleman and the struggles she faced, the barriers she broke, and the heights to which she climbed. Born in Atlanta, Texas on Jan. 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman had 12 brothers and sisters. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid and was married to her father, George Coleman, a Native American sharecropper. By the time she was 18 years old, Coleman saved enough to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Oklahoma, but she only attended for a semester due to financial issues. Coleman pressed on and moved to Chicago with her brothers, where after a few years her brothers returned from the First World War with stories from France of the freedoms that women enjoyed, including learning to fly.

Coleman’s efforts to soar among the clouds were not without hindrance from the blight of racism and sexism that was the unfortunate norm in America during the 1920s. She was denied access to flight schools across the nation as a result of her sex and race. Coleman received a tip from the editor of the African American newspaper “The Chicago Defender” to move to France in order to become a pilot. She began to study the French language at night as the application letter had to be written in French.

After months of hard work, Coleman was accepted to Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, where she learned to fly in an old French biplane. After several months of training, Coleman became the first African American woman and Native American woman to receive and international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921.

By the time Coleman returned to the United States, she was a household name. She appeared in her first airshow in September 1922 in Garden City, Long Island at an event honoring black veterans of the First World War. Her performance dazzled spectators as she marveled them with her aerial acrobatics. The name Bessie Coleman soon became synonymous with brilliance behind the controls of an airplane.

Coleman’s contributions extended beyond her performances in the air. She was famous among aviators in that she would not perform in any shows that would not permit black audience members. In one instance in Texas, she put a show on hold until the stadium allowed black and white patrons to enter through the same doors. Coleman found that the racial hatred she had experienced growing up had no basis or reason when it came to flying far above land. As she herself said: “The air is the only place free from prejudices.”

Tragically, Coleman’s life was cut short. On April 30, 1926, she was flying in Jacksonville, Florida with a known friend of hers at the controls. When flying at over 3,000 feet, the plane malfunctioned and went into a steep dive. It then unexpectedly flipped over. Coleman, who was not wearing a safety harness was thrown out of the cockpit and plummeted to her death. The plane then crashed near to where she had landed killing the pilot as well.

As with most legends, Coleman’s impact on the world of aviation would live on past her death. She has repeatedly been sighted as being the inspiration for many African Americans and minorities of other backgrounds to pursue careers in aeronautics. Most famously, Mae Jemison, the first African American astronaut, carried a picture of Coleman with her on her first mission in orbit.

We at the History Club tip our hats to this tireless advocate for civil rights and racial equality and true aeronautical legend. Her example of dogged pursuance of her dreams despite every possible barrier is an inspiration to us all. We hope that you will think of her among other great African American heroes and heroines this Black History Month.

If you’d like to discuss Bessie Coleman, Black History Month, or any history topic, come see the History Club in UCB 333. We have meetings every Wednesday at 6 p.m. All UH and Hawaiʻi CC students are welcome to attend. Our door is always open.