Bessie Coleman: Black Aviatrix Essay, Research Paper
Elizabeth Bessie Coleman is an unknown figure in American history. At first, she complied with society s standard of job opportunities for women at the turn of the century by working as a domestic and later a manicurist (Creasman 162-3). After feeling unfulfilled, she turned to flying. The search for flying lessons by an African American in the 1920 s alone could have discouraged anyone, but not Bessie. Her dream was to open a flight school where young African American men could learn how to fly. This was a bold endeavor for any person regardless of race. After acquiring an international pilot s license, she became somewhat of a novelty. She was African American, a woman, and a pilot. Realizing her power as an attraction, she would only fly in air shows with the understanding that they not be segregated (Freydberg 91). Bessie was very intelligent, often surrounding herself with women and men of power. Examples being Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Robert Abbott, Miriam A. Ma Ferguson, and Kojo Touvalou-Houenou. Ms. Coleman was also active in both the NAACP, and Marcus Garvey s Universal Negro Improvement Association (Freydberg 28). She also attended the Second Pan African Congress, which was held by W.E.B. du Bois (Freydberg 28). Bessie Coleman s should not be considered as a novelty, but as a person who fought for the equal rights of African American and women.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 20th, 1896 in Atlanta, Texas. In many historical and biographical accounts her birth year appears as either 1892 or 1893, which ever suited her needs. Her mother Susan was African American, and her father George was three quarters Choctaw Indian and one quarter African (Salzman 606). The combination of ancestry gave Ms. Coleman her copper colored skin tone. Within two years the Coleman family packed up and made the trek 30 miles south of Dallas to Waxahachie, Texas (Mabunda 61). There was more or less a separate community within Waxahachie where blacks established their own religious, commercial, and social institutions, which was very common at the turn of the century (Rich 5). This move was made to lessen the effects of discrimination and to find better job opportunities, neither of which panned out. Experiencing tremendous discrimination, George Coleman decided to return to Indian Country in Oklahoma. By moving there, he told Susan that they would enjoy the full rights of citizens (Rich 8). Her reply was that she was neither pioneer nor squaw, so George Coleman made the move alone (Rich 8). Bessie Coleman was seven years old.
At this point, it is easy to see that her mother had a tremendous influence on her. Wanting a better future for her family, Susan Coleman would save up any money possible to obtain books from a library wagon. She would have her children read the bible as well as attend church. As soon as Bessie learned how to read she was assigned a reading from the Bible every night after dinner (Rich 9). Her reading also incorporated works on African American heroes including Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Harriet Tubman. After reading Uncle Tom s Cabin, she announced that I ll never be a Topsy or an Uncle Tom (Rich 11). Susan Coleman also studied her white employers and instructed her children how to emulate them. This would only serve to help Bessie in the future.
After completing all eight grades in Texas, Bessie moved on to the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. With little money, she was forced to withdraw. She soon made a familiar journey for African Americans by moving north. The Great Migration, was a term used to describe the vast exodus of African Americans from the rural south to the industrialized north. This occurred before and during World War I. When many European Americans left for battle, the demand for laborers, especially in wartime, increased at an alarming rate. Strapped for workers, businesses opened their doors to African Americans, many for the first time. Bessie lived with her brother Johnny who was a cook for Al Capone (Freydberg 69). She went to school to become a manicurist, which led to two jobs (Malveaux 34). Both were at barbershops on State Street. State Street was known as The Stroll. The Stroll, was the black Wall Street and Broadway it was downtown, with an ethnic view (Rich 20). Here is where Bessie would meet entertainers such as Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Bill Bojangles Robinson. Josephine Baker also shared Bessie s view on equality by refusing to perform in nightclubs unless African Americans were admitted (Freydberg 119). It was at this time that Bessie Coleman turned her full attention to flying.
Bessie s brother John walked in to the barbershop where she worked one day. He began to tease her and tell her stories about when he was in the military in France. He told her that while in France he saw French women working on, and even flying airplanes. John stated that there was no way an African American woman could do that (Rich 26). Bessie promptly replied, That s it You just called it for me (Rich 27). Although it sounded spontaneous, Bessie had been contemplating flying for some time. She had read about the exploits of World War I aces and they intrigued her. This was the spark that lit her flame.
Finding someone, a white someone, to teach her how to fly was impossible. This was a harsh time for African Americans, especially with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. With this resurrection came director D.W. Griffith s Birth of a Nation, a movie glorifying the anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish Klan (Rich 16). A movie cheered by whites everywhere, including Chicago. Bessie turned to Robert Abbott, founder and editor of the African American Chicago Defender, for help. He told Bessie that France was the place for her. Over there, her race would not be an issue. Robert Abbott was very influential in not only Chicago, but also the United States as a whole. He distributed his newspaper by means of Pullman porters, successfully circumventing the racist government postal service of the South (Freydberg 73). After leaving her job and opening a chili stand to increase her funds, Bessie left for France.
France was never an issue of race, but one of gender. Bessie realized that women were being excluded from aviation, no one would teach her. She finally convinced the Ecole d Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy to let her fly but only after she signed a waiver of liability (Freydberg 81). Her hardships continued when, with no transportation, she had to walk the nine miles to and from the airfield. Bessie considered it all part of her physical training in preparation of her International pilot s license (Rich 32). After completing her training, she was placed on the schools register as a graduate, and was allowed to pursue her elusive pilot s license. On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman earned her Federation Arenautique Internationale license, the only license recognized all over the world. She soon departed for Paris where she reportedly took lessons from a World War I ace. Upon completion of her training, Bessie returned to the United States.
Once again the racism and sexism forced Bessie back to France. Unable to secure a job as a commercial pilot, she had no other option. Bessie departed east for a trip that would include France, Holland, and Germany. She toured airplane-manufacturing plants, flew over palaces, and picked up advanced training. In the process she also secured film reels of her flights and letters of recognition from famous World War I aces and foreign dignitaries. She was ready for an air show.
Bessie flew in many air shows across the United States. On September 3, 1922, Bessie gave her first air show in New York City. Not only was it a personal triumph for her, but it also served to honor the Fifteenth New York Infantry, part of the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force (Haskins 31). An honor that she would bestow on a similar military division in Chicago soon after. Included in her appearances was a show in Columbus, Ohio which coincidentally coincided with a Ku Klux Klan recruitment drive. She was undaunted. The Chicago Defender gave a tremendous amount of publicity for the first public flight of an African American woman in the United States.
At every possible moment, she spoke of her impending flight school. An interview with the Defender helped to acknowledge her goals, one of which was to push the men of her race into the air. Bessie coolly stated I shall never be satisfied until we have men of the Race who can fly (Rich 36). She offered to meet with, and provide information to anyone interested in flying schools. She was a one-woman public relations machine. Once on the lecture circuit, she spoke at schools, community centers churches, and anywhere else they would allow her to speak. She also gave lectures in theaters, which included a showing of her film reels.
Unfortunately, Bessie Coleman was tragically killed when she was thrown from her airplane being piloted by her mechanic. They took off and surveyed the field with no problems. Suddenly the plane sped up from 80 mph to 110 mph and then went into a nosedive. Her mechanic was accidentally burned alive when he regained a semblance of control and crashed into a barn. Injured but alive, he was ultimately killed when a bystander nervously lit a cigarette, igniting the plane s leaking fuel. Due to her size, Bessie was unable to survey the field with her seatbelt on. Once they went into the dive there was no way to save her.
There was a tremendous turnout for her funerals. The first was held in Jacksonville, the day after the crash. Following the ceremony, her body was placed aboard a train heading for Orlando. There some friends held a second funeral, which was followed by yet another train ride. This time the train was headed for Chicago, while a friend accompanied Bessie on the trip. Ida B. Wells-Barnett headed this last funeral in Chicago. The turn out of the tens of thousands of people secured her place in history as a leader in her community. Lt. William J. Powell, the founder and president of the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs stated that, because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream (Rich 120). This statement reflects Bessie s undying devotion to not only flying, but also to the African American people. By keeping the hope alive, Bessie gave both African American women and men the courage they needed to survive and flourish. She had many offers in her day, including movie roles. She turned them down when they gave a stereotypic view of African Americans, claiming No Uncle Tom stuff for me (Freydberg ). She even refused to pass, which was when an African American would pretend to be white, foreign or American Indian in order to gain more respect. When asked to do so by reporters, she would bring out her mother and one of her sisters, both who had dark skin colors. She respected her heritage, she respected her race, and she respected her gender.
Forty-one years prior to Ms. Coleman s birth, a slave named Celia was executed in the state of Missouri. She was executed because she murdered her white master when he attempted to rape her. Many in Missouri acknowledged that Celia was raped, but sexual assault on a slave woman by white males was considered trespass, not rape, and an owner could hardly be charged with trespass on his own property (McLaurin 110-111). However, the law gave a slave the right to use force to repel physical attacks that threatened his or her life (McLaurin 101-102). Due to her state of pregnancy, Celia was very ill. After being continuously raped, she threatened Newsom to stop. Celia went as far as to plead with others in the Newsom family for help (McLaurin 31). Lawyers representing Celia tried to show that her life was in danger at the time of Newsom s death. They claimed the death of Newsom was self-defense and that by being refused help, Celia was left with no choice. For obvious reasons, a self-defense argument never had a fair chance in a slave state.
Even though Bessie Coleman was not a slave, she did experience a near slave-like upbringing. The Coleman s, as with other African Americans, were in very subservient positions to their white neighbors. The Waxahachie economy depended on cotton, as did the economy for most of the antebellum South. Bessie s entire family worked in these cotton fields during harvest. When not in the field, Susan Coleman worked for a white family as a domestic. The Jones s treated Susan Coleman much better than a slave would have been treated but without that income, the Coleman s would not have survived. This dependence on European Americans could be considered post-Civil War slavery.
The difference between Bessie and Celia can be illustrated through the concept of mobility. Bessie was able to travel in order to find a job, obtain an education, and eventually learn how to fly. When travelling in Europe for instruction, Bessie was not treated harshly due to race. Her biggest obstacle there was her gender. She battled through the obstacle and attempted to return home, where she would educate others. Bessie saw education as a way to bridge the gap between the races. The idea that she could even attempt to teach other African Americans would not have existed in Celia s time. There was no reason to teach a slave because they were not considered a human, just property.
Bessie was considered a novelty when she flew. Not only was she African American, but she was also a petite woman. She did seemingly the impossible in a time when many considered a woman to be less than equal to men, and African Americans less than equal to whites. Bessie Coleman controlled a large piece of machinery, one in which she could not wear her seatbelt in order to survey the ground below. This small woman broke down social barriers. In these shows, she desegregated the gates and the audiences. She used her novelty to teach others when ever possible. This happened at shows, churches, theaters, meeting houses, and any other place she could be heard. Her goal was to teach African American men fly, and though she fell short in her goal to create an air school, she did serve as an influence to many whom followed. Bessie exploited herself in order to help African Americans as a whole.
During the period between the death of Celia and the birth of Bessie, there was the Civil War, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), and the initiation of federal Segregation Laws in 1896 (Freydberg 25). After the Civil War, northern troops occupied the South during a period known as Reconstruction. This was the first real protection offered to African Americans by the United States government. This was a period when African Americans sought land to build a home, and jobs to create a better life (Freydberg 25).
In 1896, the Supreme Court handed down their ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. It stated that racial segregation was legal as long as the separate facilities for blacks and whites were equal ” (Encarta). By doing so, Albion Tourgee s argued that “the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority” (Encarta). Tourgee was a white advocate of African American legal rights. Separate but equal was not the case for Bessie Coleman. She was forced to go to a substandard school, and forced to leave the country to obtain instruction in aviation. Even her father felt no choice but to move back to an Indian reservation in order to be treated as a citizen.
Both Celia and Bessie Coleman can be considered slaves because the surrounding white population oppressed each. Celia, however, was considered property and not human. She was bought and sold, never allowed to leave her situation to seek a better life. Bessie Coleman had that opportunity. She realized that education for her, as well as the African American population, could lead to a better life. Bessie could move north to seek work. She could travel across the Atlantic in order to obtain a pilot s license. She could return to the United States and not worry that she would be captured and placed into bondage immediately upon arrival. In the period after the death of Celia, the slow process of change began.
Bessie Coleman should be remembered as a pioneer and a nationalist. She left the South for a better life in Chicago. From there she sought instruction in flying but was denied. Not letting anything stop her, she left for France where she earned the first International Pilot s License ever giving to an African American. She returned to the United States where she fought through race and gender in order to not only entertain, but also teach others. She broke down segregation by refusing to fly in segregated air shows, something the white promoters could not afford due to her notoriety. Bessie Coleman even attracted the white press who reported her exploits as the first Black Aviatrix. She overcame these obstacles and should be remembered not as a slave like Celia, but as an African American nationalist.
Today, African American pilots remember Bessie Coleman by flying low over her burial site and dropping flowers on her grave. In 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O Hare Airport Bessie Coleman Drive (Mabunda 64). In 1992, Mayor Daily named May 2nd Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago (Mabunda 64). Soon after, Bessie Coleman was honored when the US Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
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