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HERE’S A WOMAN who rose from a http://wp.me/p2ETap-az9 sharecropper family to being called “the world’s greatest woman flier” in 1922. Today in Part 2, we find Bessie returning to the U.S. after her flight training in France (because her homeland’s flying schools had no interest in teaching women or “coloreds”). Initially, she didn’t stay for long.
Queen Bess. Upon return to the U.S., Bess found her aviation skills too limited for the dangerous career of exhibition flying. In February 1922, she returned to Europe for additional training in France; the Netherlands, where she met Tony Fokker (see also TONY FOKKER’S POST-WAR SCAMS); and Germany (where she trained with a Fokker chief test pilot).
Her first American air show was on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-African-American 369th Infantry Regiment of WWI. There, Bessie was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”
A Woman of Soaring Standards. Bessie was ambitious about her barnstorming, but also was committed to combating racism. According to Wikipedia, “Coleman spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans.”
The Internet Archive notes, “Clearly Bessie was prone to exaggeration and not all of her stories were true. Still, she was no more guilty of enhancing her interviews with falsehoods than most of her pioneer aviator colleagues.” See https://archive.org/details/queenbessdaredev00rich/page/37/mode/2up.
The Internet Archive continues: “But for all her embellishments of her own adventures, Bessie’s pride in her race was deep and genuine. When a reporter from the Chicago Herald offered to do a story on her if she agreed to pass as white, she took her mother and niece along with her for the interview. She was laughing as they walked into the reporter’s office. Pointing to Susan and Marion, who were dark-skinned, she said, ‘This is my mother and this my niece. And you want me to pass?”
Through other media contacts, Bessie was offered a role in a feature-length movie titled Shadow and Sunshine. She refused to take part, though, when she learned the opening scene would show her in tattered clothes, with a pack on her back and a walking stick.
Bessie also refused to participate in any air show that contrived separate gates or sections for “colored.”
Bessie’s Death. On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman perished with her mechanic when their newly purchased and shoddily constructed aircraft crashed at a Jacksonville, Florida, air show. She was 34.
Bessie’s Legacy. A public library in Chicago is named in Bessie’s honor, as are roads at O’Hare International, Oakland International, Tampa International, and Frankfurt International. A roundabout leading to Nice Airport in the south of France is named after her, as are streets in Poitiers and in Paris’s 20th Arrondissement.
In 2014, Bessie was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Mae Jemison, (see AN ENLIGHTENING T-SHIRT), the first African-American woman astronaut, said of Bessie, “… here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model for all humanity, the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.”
We continue to celebrate Bessie Coleman. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020
Thanks for sharing this splendid story, Dennis.
Thank you, Michael. Agreed, she was quite a person.