"Black women ain't never goin' to fly..."
“Black women ain’t never goin’ to fly”, Bessie Coleman’s brother told her in 1919, whilst mocking her about her job in a nail salon in Chicago. Her brother John had served in the army during World War I in France, and often spoke of the fearless women he met there who were “so liberated, they could even fly planes.”
In that moment, Bessie decided she would prove him wrong. She applied for pilot lessons across America, but no one was willing to take on an African-American woman. Undeterred, Bessie decided to do the next best thing – she would go to France where perhaps her gender and race would not be so much of a barrier. She took French lessons at night school, found a higher paid job managing a restaurant and secured funding from various benefactors to pay for her trip.
In November 1920, Bessie headed into the unknown, boarding a boat to Europe. She arrived in northern France and enrolled in a seven-month flight school run by aviation pioneers Gaston and René Caudron.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices.”
During her time at flight school, not only did Bessie learn how to fly, she also loved learning tricks and manoeuvres like loop the loops and tail spins. All of her lessons were taken in old fragile planes with no steering wheel, just a wooden stick to control the pitch and roll, and a bar by the pilots feet to move the nose of the plane. Every time she hit the skies, Bessie would have to meticulously check her plane to make sure it was fit for flying. There were often crashes, and she even witnessed the death of one of her fellow students.
Bessie took all of this in her stride, graduating in June 1921, and received her pilots license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which granted her permission to fly anywhere in the world!
Returning to America, Bessie took the aviation world by storm, performing stunt shows for large crowds, often pulling tricks like walking out onto the wing of the plane, parachuting off the back, nose-diving and loop the looping – and the crowds loved it! By this time Bessie had made a name for herself and was widely covered in mainstream press across America.
While performing in California, Bessie had a serious crash, breaking her ribs and legs. She was not able to fly properly for another two years, and famously wrote a telegram to her fans explaining “as soon as I can walk, I’m going to fly!”
“I refused to take no for an answer.”
In 1926, after saving up for a new plane, Bessie decided to put on two new shows in Florida. During the second show, she un-belted herself to peer over the wing to find a good spot for landing her parachute. Sadly, a loose wrench somehow got stuck in the plane’s gears and her partner William Wills lost control. Bessie fell to her death from the nosediving plane, she was just 34 years old. Wills also lost his life as the plane crashed to the ground.
Bessie’s death was mostly overshadowed by Wills’ in the mainstream press, but was front page news in most black newspapers. A memorial service was held for her in Florida, led by legendary journalist Ida B Wells, and more than 10,000 people came to pay their respects to the famous “daredevil aviatrix”. Bessie was the first female African-American pilot, and her achievements went on to influence many others including Mae Jemison who was the first African-American woman to go to space.