Today, let's meet the first black woman to fly. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It should be no surprise
that the first two black Americans to win flying
licenses did so under unusual circumstances. First
was Eugene Bullard. He
joined the French Foreign Legion during WW-I. Then
he managed to transfer to the French flying
But the more remarkable tale is that of Bessie
Coleman. Coleman was born around 1892, the
thirteenth child in the family, and raised in
Waxahachie, Texas. Her family lived on the edge of
poverty, picking cotton in a region of lynchings
and a highly active Ku Klux Klan. This was Black
America's darkest hour.
But Bessie was smart and determined. She learned to
read. She got books from a local lending library
and read to her family at night: first the Bible,
then Uncle Tom's
Cabin and books about Booker T.
Washington and Harriet Tubman. She finished the
eighth grade and a term at a black normal school in
Oklahoma. Back in Waxahachie, she did laundry and
dreamt of a larger life.
During WW-I, she packed off to Chicago. For four
years she worked as a manicurist and read about the
new heroes of flight in France. She wanted to fly,
but no American flying school would have her. So
she mastered French in night school. She saved her
money and, in 1921, sailed for France. She managed
to enroll in the Coudron Brothers' famous School of
There she flew Nieuports -- the same airplane my
father had so loved to fly when he flew in France
two years before her. Like him, she described the
smell of castor oil and the heat of the engine. She
graduated in 1922 and returned to America.
It was now a different country for her. She'd been
licensed to fly by the best. She joined into the
community of black intellectuals in the Harlem of
the '20s. And she hatched a plan to set up her own
flying school. Next year she was back in Europe
drumming up support for the idea. Anthony Fokker
entertained her in Holland. He showed her his
airplane factories and vowed his support. Former
German pilots entertained her in Berlin.
She barnstormed America to raise money for the
project. She became a darling of the white press.
Back in Texas in 1925, she did air shows in Houston
and Dallas. She went back to Waxahachie for a show.
The gates and bleachers were to be segregated. She
drew a line. No show unless black and white entered
by the same gate. Of course, the bleachers stayed
1926 found her scouting a parachute-jump site in
Jacksonville. The controls of her Curtis Jenny
locked. The plane spun and she fell 2000 feet to
her death. She was only 34. And all that remained
of Bessie Coleman, hanging in the clear above her,
was a huge legacy of loving life -- and an
inspiration to us all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Freydberg, E.H., Coleman, Bessie (1896-1926).
Black Women in America: An Historical
Encyclopedia (Darlene Clark Hine, ed.). New
York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, pp. 262-263.
Rich, D.L., Queen Bess: Daredevil
Aviator, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1993.
Hardesty, V., and Pisano, D., Black
Wings, Washington, D.C., National Air and
Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1984. See
especially, p. 6.
Moolman, V., Women Aloft, Alexandria,
VA: Time-Life Books, 1981, pp. 43-45
I am grateful to Dr. Linda Reed, Director of the UH
African American Studies Program, for information
on Bessie Coleman; and to Waxahachian Margaret
Culbertson for additional advice and for locating
the important Queen Bess source.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
The Curtiss Jenny
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