By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
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 and to encourage flying among men and women of our Race who are so far behind the White race in this modern study.
Quote from Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926)
Long before the Civil Rights Movement which reached its zenith 50 years ago in 1964 with what many considered radical changes, African-American men and women like Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman were striving for the betterment of the race.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to Susan and George Coleman. Coleman is part of the aviation history of America as the first African-American pilot with an international pilot’s license. This historic achievement was during a time when most African-Americans, male and female, were relegated to less than second class citizens.
Like many African-American families in the southern United States at that time the members of her family were tenant farmers on land owned by a White family. African-American tenant farmers did not fare a whole lot better than when they were enslaved by White landowners. Many of them lived and worked on the property of their former enslavers. In 1892 when Coleman was born Africans in America had been freed from chattel slavery a mere 27 years.
“Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction’.” http://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/document.html?doc=9&title.raw=13th%20Amendment%20to%20the%20U.S.%20Constitution%3A%20Abolition%20of%20Slavery
Growing up in the shadow of slavery and the reality of the rabid racism, White supremacist culture and laws of Jim Crow it is therefore amazing what Coleman was able to achieve in her 34 years of life. As tenant farmers the Coleman family were forced to pick cotton to make a living. Bessie Coleman was an excellent student whose education was frequently interrupted at cotton picking time when the children of tenant farmers were forced to leave their studies to pick cotton alongside their parents. Coleman also helped her mother with the domestic work she did for White families in order for the family to survive financially.
After completing secondary school and unable to find work other than as a domestic worker serving a White family, or the backbreaking work of picking cotton as a tenant farmer, Coleman eventually moved to Chicago in 1915 during the time when many African-Americans were leaving the southern states and moving north.
Coleman was one of the estimated six million African-Americans who moved to Chicago from Southern states in what became known as “The Great Migration”. As the first European tribal conflict (1914-1918) was in full swing, African-Americans were needed to feed the war machine in various capacities. In his 1989 book: “Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration” White historian James R. Grossman writes: “When asked what they liked about the North, nearly all black newcomers interviewed by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in 1920 mentioned ‘freedom’.
“This freedom cannot be neatly defined. It meant different things to different people as it had 50 years earlier at emancipation. For nearly all who left the South during the Great Migration it embodied some combination of rights, opportunities, dignity and pride. In Chicago black men and women did not have to truckle to whites. They could vote, a right that symbolized their full citizenship and the legitimacy of their participation in the affairs of the broader community. They could work in factories, where they earned high wages, envisioned the possibility of promotion and made meaningful choices on the crucial issue of unionization.”
This was a far cry from the life African-Americans in the southern states were living. In her 2013 book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”, African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson writes that African-Americans living in the south “had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal.”
This was the life that Bessie Coleman and the estimated six million African-Americans fled when they migrated to Chicago. Of course with the end of World War I the need for the labour of African-Americans in Chicago was over and there were brutal attacks by White mobs on African-American communities.
Coleman joined her brothers who had moved to Chicago previously and instead of working as a domestic (one of the jobs many African-American women performed in Chicago) she trained as a manicurist and worked at a barbershop. Coleman was enthralled by the stories she heard from African-American pilots returning from World War I and her brothers’ stories of French women pilots. During that time in America only a few wealthy White women were pilots. That did not stop the young African-American woman who worked as a manicurist in a Chicago barber shop from determining to become a pilot.
Coleman tried to enroll in aviation schools, but was rejected because she was an African-American woman. Finally, with the support of Robert Sengstacke Abbott, African-American businessman and owner of the popular newspaper, The Chicago Defender and Jesse Binga an African-American real estate mogul and banker (owner of the Binga Bank), Bessie Coleman headed to France to learn how to fly. She had met Abbot when she gave him a manicure. He researched the feasibility of an African-American woman being accepted into aviation school in France and found that she stood a better chance of being accepted in a European aviation school. Coleman studied French, saved her money and with financial support from the two African-American businessmen flew to France to learn how to fly.
In the 2005 book, “Bessie Coleman”, authors Philip S. Hart and Martha Cosgrove write: “In December 1920 Bessie Coleman began taking flying lessons at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale issued Bessie’s pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.”
In September 1921 Coleman returned to America as the first African-American woman with an international pilot’s license. After a second stint of training in Europe (advanced training) as an acrobatic pilot Coleman returned to the USA where she became a stunt pilot performing exhibition flying.
Touring the country as a barnstorming pilot, where she insisted that she would not perform for segregated audiences. She was an inspiration for many young African-Americans, who began to view flying as a possible career. She lectured at schools, churches and recreational facilities in the African-American community, encouraging African-Americans to enter the aviation field and she planned to open an aviation school for African-Americans.
Coleman did not get to realize her dream of opening an aviation school in the USA where African-Americans could learn to fly. In the 2004 book, “Hidden History – Profiles of Black Americans”, White author Walter Andy Hazen writes: “On April 30, 1926, she was killed in a bizarre crash in Jacksonville, Florida. A wrench had somehow jammed the controls of her plane, causing it to go into a dive and flip over. She had neither buckled her seat belt nor taken a parachute with her. Consequently she was thrown from the plane to her death.”
Bessie Coleman’s pioneering spirit and her determination not to let American racism limit her ambitions served as an inspiration for African-Americans to pursue aviation as a profession. As a tribute to her inspirational life, in 1931, African-American pilots from Chicago instituted an annual fly over of her grave. In 1977 a group of African-American women pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club and in 1992 a Chicago City council resolution requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. The resolution noted that “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude, and her determination to succeed.”