Did you know that the first African-American female pilot grew up in Waxahachie? A historical marker was dedicated to her memory at the new Freedman Memorial Park. Bessie Coleman was just two years old when she moved with her parents and nine brothers and sisters to Waxahachie for a better life.She grew up playing on the front porch or yard of the Coleman home, located on Mustang Creek. Three more siblings were born and as Bessie grew older, she assumed more responsibilities for her brothers and sisters. At age six, she began school, walking 4 miles a day. Bessie was an outstanding math student and diligent in her schoolwork. Her days included school, housework and helping pick cotton during the cotton harvest.
When Bessie turned 12, the Missionary Baptist Church accepted her as a student. She completed 8 grades of education and was still not satisfied. Bessie saved her money and enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1910. She had to return to Waxahachie after completing the first semester, because she ran out of money. Bessie found a job as a laundress and continued working until she left for Chicago in 1915 to stay with her brother. She wanted to “amount to something” and left her small hometown to discover what that “something” was.
Bessie found work as a beautician and lived on the South Side of Chicago, where 90% of blacks lived. She continued to read avidly and learn about different subjects that interested her.
World War I started and Bessie’s two brothers left to serve their country. Both Walter and John Coleman served in France, and when they returned, they teased Bessie about French women flying airplanes and having careers. Those harmless comments caught fire in Bessie’s heart, and she decided at the age of 27 to become a pilot.
bessWhen Bessie was not able to locate a pilot school in the United States that would accept her, she turned her determined sights to France. Several unknown sources provided her with funding and when she received her passport and French visa, she left for Somme, France in November of 1920. Bessie was an avid student, and she completed the ten-month course in only seven months. She learned to fly in a French Nieuport Type 82, and she received her pilot’s license from the prestigious Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) on June 15, 1921. Bessie was the first black woman to earn a license from the FAI and she was the only woman in her class of 62 students.
Bessie returned to New York on September 16, 1921 by ship. An amazing amount of press coverage awaited her. But Bessie discovered that before she could fly an airplane as an entertainer, she needs more advanced training. On February 28, 1922, she left for France and achieved the additional training that she needed.
Bessie returned to the United States to begin her new flying career. She understood the need for publicity and she created an image of herself in a military-style uniform. Her first public appearance as an aviator was on September 3, 1922 at Curtis Field near New York City. She was billed as the “world’s greatest woman flyer.” Bessie traveled around the country, including Memphis and Chicago. Her first appearance in Texas was at a Houston racetrack in 1925.
One of Bessie’s goals was to open a school for aviators. She lined up a series of lectures and exhibition flights in Texas to promote this idea. She accumulated enough money for a down payment on a plane from the Curtis Southwestern Airplane and Motor Company. She made the payment at Love Field in Dallas.
Bessie went on another series of lectures in black theaters in Georgia and Florida. She borrowed airplanes so she could continue to fly exhibitions. Bessie refused to perform unless the audiences were desegregated and everyone was allowed to use the same gates. Bessie made the final payment on her airplane in Dallas, with the help of an unknown patron. She arranged to have it flown to Jacksonville, Florida for her next show, scheduled for May 1, 1926.
bessHer plane arrived in Jacksonville toward the end of April. On the evening of April 30th, Bessie took the plane up with her mechanic for a test flight. Sadly, the plane malfunctioned and the mechanic, who was flying it, lost control. Bessie fell from the open cockpit to her death.
Bessie Coleman was well loved and respected for the racial and social barriers that she conquered. In 1929, William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club for African Americans in Los Angeles. In 1931, the Challenger Pilot’s Association in Chicago began an annual flyover over the cemetery where Bessie was buried. In 1977, more than 45 years later, the women pilots in the Chicago area established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Bessie Coleman stamp. On July 14, 2000, Bessie was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
And now the circle is complete. The town that formed Bessie Coleman, provided her with her strong values, ideals and determination, has officially commemorated her memory with an historical marker that briefly tells her story.
To learn more about Bessie Coleman’s remarkable life and the accolades that she received after her untimely death, please visit www.bessiecoleman.com.