Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born.
When George Coleman's hopes for a better living in Waxahachie remained unfulfilled, and with five of his nine living children still at home, he proposed moving again, this time to Indian territory in Oklahoma. There, on a reservation, his heritage of three Native American grandparents would give him the civil rights denied to both ...view middle of the document...
She left after one year when her funds were exhausted.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915 when she moved to Chicago to live with her older brother, Walter, a Pullman porter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while she continued to seek - and finally, in 1920, to find - a goal for her life: aviation.
Cultivating the friendship of leaders in South Side Chicago's African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott, publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman appealed to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he said, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation.
Coleman took French language lessons while managing a chili parlor and, with backing from Abbott and a wealthy real estate dealer, Jessie Binga, she left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her F.A.I. (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license on June 15, 1921. She returned to the United States in September 1921 but soon realized that she needed to expand her repertoire and learn aerobatics if she were to make a living giving exhibition flights. She went back to Europe the following February and for the next six months gained further flying experience in Holland, France, and Germany.
Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined to reporters the objectives she intended to pursue for the remainder of her life. She would be a leader, she said, in introducing aviation to her race. She would found a school for aviators of any race, and she would appear before audiences in churches, schools, and theaters to arouse the interest of African Americans in the new, expanding technology of flight.
Intelligent, beautiful, and eloquent, Coleman often exaggerated her remarkable-enough accomplishments in the interest of better publicity and bigger audiences. She even achieved occasional brief notice from the press of the time, which ordinarily confined its coverage of African Americans to actors, athletes and entertainers or those involved in sex, crime, or violence. But the African American press of the country, primarily weekly newspapers, quickly proclaimed her "Queen Bell."
In December 1922, after a number of successful air shows on the East Coast and in Chicago, Coleman walked out on the starring role of a New York movie in production, publicly denouncing the script as "Uncle Tom stuff" de-meaning to her race. The abrupt move alienated a number of...