Author Digs Facts to Tell Story of First Black Female Aviator by Nita Lelyveld dateline: Washington –
She was pioneer American Aviator. Her flight drew big crowds. She was daring and exciting and beautiful, too. And she died tragically while flying, But unlike her contemporary Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman made no splash in history.
Bessie Coleman was black.
The World’s first black female aviator got her pilot’s license in 1921 – two years before Earhart. She flew in Europe, starred in air shows, and tried her best to become famous. But outside of the segregated black world in which she lived, few people ever paid attention.
Now the author of an acclaimed biography of Earhart is working to change that, with a new book, “Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator” Doris L. Rich first heard about Coleman while doing research for Amelia Earhart: A Biography” Over and over, she came across her name in early aviation history. But no one gave details. It took a lot of digging to find any. Coleman didn’t leave records: she could barely write. And the mainstream press rarely wrote about her. Old copies of the weekly. Old copies of weekly black newspapers that covered her appearances are not easy to come by, “With Earhart, I was flooded with information,” says Rich. “Every time I found a fact about Bessie, I was deeply grateful that day.
Looking back, It’s hard to believe anyone could have lived Coleman’s life. Born in 1892 in east Texas she grew up in an three-room shotgun shack, picking cotton and taking in white people’s laundry. She went to Chicago in 1915 and became a manicurist in a black beauty shop. Then one day she decided to fly. How she came to the idea is unclear. But she had always set her sights high, Rich says. “She was born with a kind of self-confidence in which she viewed herself as very gifted, very special – as someone who was going to amount to something,” Rich said. With people like that, background and beginnings don’t matter. When no one in Chicago would agree to teach her, Coleman raised the money to travel to France, where she took courses at one of the best flight schools – L’Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy in the Somme. She returned to France briefly in 1922 for advanced training. Between 1921 and 1926, Coleman earned the nickname “Queen Bess”. She toured the country, gave exhibition flights and spoke at black churches and schools. When she took to the air, she wore dashing and stylish French pilot’s outfit , with a leather helmet, long leather coat and leather leggings.
Coleman loved publicity, and was prone to bending the truth to get it. She was eternally 24 years old, for starters. And she once told a reporter she had learned to fly after going to France with the Red Cross during the war.
But despite her dramatic flair, she was serious too – especially about her dream of starting a school to train black aviators.
Her biggest problem was getting a plane. She scraped together money to buy an old one in California in 1923, but was laid up for three months with a broken leg and other injuries after it stalled and crashed the first time she took it out. Her second plane cost her her life. She fell out of it on April 30, 1926 as it nose-dived toward the ground while she was planning an exhibition flight in Jacksonville, Fla. She was 34 years old.