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April 17th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Barnstormer Bessie Coleman broke many barriers

This Week in Texas History:
A column

On Apr. 23, 1926, Bessie Coleman made the last payment on her new airplane and arranged for the second-hand Jenny to be flown to Jacksonville, Florida, site of her next air show.

“Brave Bessie” was born in 1893 less than a dozen miles from the Arkansas border at the northeast Texas community of Atlanta. Her father, who was three-quarters Cherokee, returned to his reservation roots around 1900, and her mother, strong-willed daughter of a freed slave, settled at Waxahachie south of Dallas.

Even though four offspring had died in childhood and five had left home, Susan Coleman still had four hungry mouths to feed. Life was a day-to-day struggle, as she took in washing and little Bessie and a sister picked cotton, but no one missed a meal in the loving home.

Illiteracy did not blind the single mother to the importance of education, and she encouraged her kids to learn to read. The brightest was Bessie, who taught herself with borrowed books and second-hand magazines. It was an article about the Wright brothers in a dog-eared periodical that sparked her interest in aviation.

Despite limited schooling, Bessie passed the entrance exam for an all-black college in Oklahoma. The precious few dollars her mother had squirreled away bought just one semester of higher education, and the promising student was forced to drop out.

Determined not to let her daughter’s dreams die on the vine, Mrs. Coleman put Bessie on the train for Chicago. She could stay with two older brothers while looking for higher  paying work in the Windy City.

The naive notion the North was a prejudice-free paradise was soon laid to rest, when a white businessman actually laughed in Bessie’s face. “You ought to know better,” he snarled, “We don’t hire negroes here.”

Realizing their sister needed a skill, the Coleman brothers loaned Bessie the money for beauty school. She studied hard and with diploma in hand landed a good job as a manicurist in the White Sox barber shop.

By this time, Bessie had changed her plans. Instead of going back to college, she wanted to take flying lessons. She would learn, however, no aviation school in America would accept a black and female applicant.

Bessie did not know which way to turn until a steady customer pointed her in the right direction. Black newspaper publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott told the ambitious nail clipper that France was the place where she could get her dream off the ground.

Fresh from a crash course in conversational French, Bessie sailed for Europe in the fall of 1920. By the next summer, she was a licensed pilot — the first of her race and gender in the world.

Bessie returned to Chicago in September 1921 and opened up a chili parlor. The day her dollars-and-cents goal was reached, she closed the popular eatery and hurried back across the Atlantic for advanced training in aerobatics.

The talented Texan was already a celebrity before her August 1922 homecoming. “Termed by leading French and Dutch aviators one of the best flyers they had seen,”reported the New York Times, “Miss Bessie Coleman, said to be the only negro aviatrix in the world, returned from Europe yesterday to give a series of exhibitions in this country.”

The diminutive daredevil proved she had the right stuff in a Labor Day stunt show on Long Island. This dazzling debut was followed within the month by an exciting crowd-pleaser at Checkerboard Aerodrome in Chicago. When she succeeded in coaxing a dead engine back to life during a death-defying dive, astonished spectators coined a new nickname–”Brave Bessie.”

"Brave Bessie" Coleman

“Brave Bessie” Coleman

While visiting her mother in Waxahachie, Bessie agreed to perform without charge for the local schoolchildren. She took a stand against segregation by refusing to take off until the black students were allowed to use the same entrance as the whites.

Bessie barely escaped with her life in 1924, when the aircraft she was testing for a tire manufacturer malfunctioned and plunged to earth. The crash grounded her for a year, which she spent cooped up in a Chicago apartment recovering from her injuries.

By 1926 the close call was a distant memory, and Bessie was her old, spectacular self. She looked forward to a benefit performance in Jacksonville, Florida not only to help a well-deserving charity but also to pitch her own idea of a flying school for blacks.

Bessie bumped into her old pal Abbott, the Chicago publisher, who told her he had a bad feeling about her new airplane. He begged her to skip the pre-show test flight on Apr. 30, 1926, but she assured him there was no reason to worry.

A recently hired mechanic was at the controls, when the plane suddenly went into a steep dive. The craft flipped over dumping 34 year old Bessie Coleman, who was not wearing her usual parachute, from the open cockpit, and she fell 2,000 feet to her death.

Interested in collections of Bartee Haile’s columns? Visit the “General Store” at or request a list from P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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