In early May 1926, thousands of people stood outside a train station on the south side of Chicago waiting for a casket to be solemnly unloaded.A military regiment stood ready to escort the dear departed. In the days to come, around 10,000 people attended services and paid their respects to the Queen.
Bessie Coleman, or Queen Bess as she was known, was the first Black woman and first Native American woman hold a pilot‘s license. She dreamed of opening an aviation school and helping other excluded students learn to become pilots.
His life was tragically ended in an accident, but his legacy lives on and continues to inspire aviators and astronauts.
The budding aviator
Coleman was born in 1892 in rural Texas, and she was one of the Twelve children. Coleman’s father, who was 75% Native American, grew frustrated with increasing restrictions imposed by Texas lawmakers and left the family for Oklahoma when he was seven years old.
Coleman’s older brothers moved to Chicago, and she was tasked with caring for her younger siblings while her mother worked. Although she had to miss several days of school, she was an outstanding student. When she finished eight years of public school, she was one of the few black students in Texas to do so.
She wanted to go on to higher education, and in 1910 she started at Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. She lasted a term before she ran out of money and had to return to Texas and work as a laundress.
She saved for the next five years and finally had enough money to leave in 1915. She boarded a northbound train and planned never to return.
In Chicago, Coleman moved in with his eldest brother and his family on the south side of Chicago. She trained as a manicure and started working in a hair salon. There she heard stories of veterans returning from World War I, and she became increasingly interested in aviation and the idea of becoming a pilot.
No flight school, however, would allow Coleman to enroll. She was female, black and Native American at a time when only white men were allowed to train.
Coleman had formed powerful relationships during his time at the barbershop, including one with Robert S. Abbott, publisher of The Chicago Defender. Abbott encouraged Coleman to learn French and obtain his pilot’s license in France.
Coleman rescued and studied. And in November 1920, she boarded a ship for Europe.
The pioneer pilot
Coleman first met with rejection in France. A school rejected her and said she was no longer training women because two female students had recently died in accidents. Coleman persisted and she found a place at the Caudron Brothers Aviation School in the Somme department in northern France.
In flight school, Coleman learned piloting and navigation techniques as well as some aerobatic maneuvers that were popular at air shows. She won his pilot’s license in June 1921 of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and was the only woman that year to do so. The following year, she became the first woman to achieve an international pilot’s license.
The press surrounded Coleman when she returned to the United States, and she was savvy enough to realize what good publicity could do. She adopted an aviator gear uniform which she wore in future years at conferences and air shows, and she was quick to hand out press kits and promote her accomplishments.
In the years to come, Coleman alternated between flying at air shows and speaking on the lecture circuit. She saved money and told the press that she planned to open her own flight school so that those excluded from pilot training could one day earn their wings.
At the height of her fame, Coleman returned to Texas for the first time since 1915. She performed at an air show and insisted she would only fly if all attendees were allowed in through the same door. If people of color were forced to enter through a side or rear door, Coleman threatened to ground his plane. The organizers gave in.
The fallen star
In May 1926, Coleman was to perform an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. She arrived a few days earlier and spoke to local groups while a mechanic stole his plane, a Curtiss JN-4 aircraft from Texas in Jacksonville. The aircraft was described by witnesses as “worn out” and “poorly maintained”. The mechanic had to stop Three times during the ride due to performance issues.
The day before he died, Coleman saw his friend, Abbott, in a restaurant. He was driving through town after visiting his mother, and he warned Coleman that he didn’t like the texas mechanic. Abbott urged her not to let the mechanic take control while she performed parachute stunts.
The next morning, Coleman and the mechanic did a test run on the airfield. The mechanic flew the plane while Coleman sat in the back seat. She unbuckled her seat belt and looked around the side of the plane to determine where it was safe to parachute.
After five minutes of circling at 80 miles per hour at 3,500 feet, the aircraft unexpectedly accelerated to 110 miles per hour. The aircraft nosed over and spiraled out of control. Coleman was pushed from her seat, and witnesses say she somersaulted through the air before hitting the ground.
The public was devastated by the news of his death and three funerals were held in his honor – two in Florida, then one in Chicago.
Coleman never realized his dream of opening a flight school, but his legacy lived on and inspired others. In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black female astronaut to go into space. And along its historic journey, it has taken with ita photo of the Queen, Bessie Coleman.