Conversations with the family of Bessie Coleman
The family of Bessie Coleman presents this site to inform the public about our family legacy - Bessie Coleman.
Above: Bessie’s sisters, Elois and Nilus, in the 1930s (Courtesy of Arthur W. Freeman). Below: Pilot Arthur W. Freeman, Bessie nephew, whose decision to become an aviator was made as a young boy after watching his aunt give an exhibition in Chicago (Courtesy of Arthur Freeman)
This excerpt taken from Doris Rich’s Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator, is one that expresses the pride and respect that the Coleman family has for our dear Aunt Bessie.
On October 15, 1922, eight-year-old Arthur Freeman stood at the edge of a runway at Chicago’s Checkerboard Airdrome, his head thrown back, looking wide - eyed into the sky at the Curtiss Jenny performing a figure eight. At the top of the eight the plane seem suddenly to heel over and plunge downward, gaining speed as it hurtled toward earth. Just 200 feet above the runway, the aircraft slowed, shuddered, then slowly nosed up, soaring back into the sky before circling the field and coming in for a perfect landing.
It’s doubtful anyone heard him. The 2,000 people (black and white) in the bleachers right behind him were making enough noise of their own, a din of yelling, clapping, and whistling…Among them were Bessie’s mother, Susan; sisters Georgia, Elois and Nilus, nieces Marion, Eulah B., and Vera, and Nilus’s son, eight year-old Arthur Freeman. Arthur had always marveled at Bessie stationary with its picture of an airplane on every sheet. Now watching her perform he was ecstatic.
“My aunt’s a flier. ..That’s my aunt! A real live aviator!” Arthur shouted. He decided to become an aviator after watching his aunt give this exhibition.
As the plane rolled to a stop and the pilot climbed from the cockpit, pushed oil-smeared goggles up over a leather helmet, and smiled at them...Arthur’s aunt was Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license in France and the first black woman in the world to fly an airplane...Not only did Arthur’s aunt know how to fly. She was also beautiful!
The love between Bessie Coleman and her mother, Susan Coleman are found in these words from Edward D. Bunn, Jr’s Lifting As She Climbed - Bessie Coleman’s Contributions to the Elevation of Black Women:
The most memorable principle passed on from mother to daughter is that of independence and the ability to provide for their children in the face of adversities. One of the most difficult circumstances that Black mothers had to deal with around the turn of the twentieth century was the predicament of setting a good motherly example for their children. In dealing with the racial prejudices that plagued Blacks, racial degradation, Black mothers had to overcome some of the most difficult circumstances in raising their children.
The life experiences passed down from mother to daughter in Black families partially explain the popularity of the Black feminist thought. Coleman’s mother typified such Black mothers. In 1922, the Broadway company “Shuffle Along” awarded Bessie Coleman a Silver Cup for her contributions to the betterment of the Black community. Coleman thought so much of her mother that she gave the trophy to her for the example she set and the hardships she overcame in raising her.
The picture on the right is of Bessie Coleman’s mother, Susan Coleman, holding the silver cup given to her daughter in 1922 by the company of the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. (Courtesy of Arthur W. Freeman)
The picture to the left is of the Bessie Coleman Aviatrix Charity Club formed in 1928 to honor her memory, (Bessie mother’s Susan Coleman is back row, center)(Courtesy of Arthur W. Freeman)
Uh, Uh! Not Me! - Fun Between Sisters
This is a funny excerpt from Bessie Coleman’ sister - Elois Coleman Patterson’s Bessie Coleman Aviatrix - Pioneer of the Negro People in Aviation: ..on her very first exhibition in Chicago, Bessie had taken for granted that her youngest sister, Georgia, would not hesitate to make a parachute jump at the show, and had run an advertisement in the Chicago Defender and other papers to that effect. Being quite busy making last minute preparations for the show - even having a red, white and blue suit made for her sister’s parachute jump as an added attraction - Bessie failed to acquaint her sister with what was expected of her until the exhibition had begun. As it turned out, there were two astonished sisters - Bessie astonished that she would not, and Georgia equally astonished that Bessie thought she would. The subject closed with each of them saying in unison, “uh uh, not me.”. There is a poem that “uh, uh, not me” is related to that Bessie often recited.
Translated from Flying Officers of the U.S.N., Naval Aviation War Book Committee, Washington, D.C., 1919, page 41
"Uh, uh! Not Me!
Cause I ain't saying I won't do
Just what my country want me to.
But there's one job I foresee
Ain't gonna teach itself to me—
Uh, uh! Not me!
That's this here airplane stuff—No, Boss,
I'll bear some other kind of cross
Like drive a mule, or tote a gun,
But I ain't flirting with the sun—
Uh, uh! Not me!
If I must do a loop-the-loop
Let mine be 'round some chicken coop;
It ain't gonna be up where the crows,
Can say I’m tromping on their toes—
Uh, uh! Not me!
It sure look sweet, I don't deny,
To be a-oozing' around the sky,
But that's for folks that's in the mood,
Not for me though because I’m shrewd—
Uh, uh! Not me!
Down here I first saw light of day
Down here is where I’m gonna stay;
Folks, I don't care to have my feet
Get too blamed proud to walk the street—
Uh, uh! Not me!"
Portrait of Bessie taken during her first stay in Paris in 1921. (Courtesy of Marion Coleman)
Memories of Bessie Coleman by her niece Marion Coleman
Excerpted from an interview for Chicago Stories: Bessie Coleman: Pilot Pioneer
My name is Marion Coleman. I'm a niece of Bessie Coleman. ….(uh uh not me continued) One time, she'd wanted my mother to jump out of the plane with a parachute on. And so my mother and her had a fight. And so my grandmother said, "What in the world is going on?" She said, "You'd better talk to your daughter, because I'm not jumping out of no damn plane." And she'd say, "Well, you don't have the courage." She'd say, "Well, I'm not jumping out of the airplane, Mama. You better talk to her." And so they had a big argument, but she didn't go. She didn't jump. So another lady came and did the jumping. And my mother said, "I don't even want to talk about it, Bess." She had bought her an outfit, but she said, "I don't care what you have bought, I'm not jumping out of no plane." And I remember. I was ten years old, and they were in there fussing like everything. And I asked my grandmother, I said, "What are they fussing about?" She said, "Nothing, because Georgia ain't gonna jump out of that airplane!" My mother's name was Georgia...
In those days, we didn't have any black doing anything on any airplane, not even riding. I don't think you could ride an airplane in those days, I mean, unless they wanted you to, But an average black person didn't want to ride in an airplane, you know? No, they really didn't. It didn't phase them at all. Only thing that really made them think Bessie was great is because she was black and she was driving. And so that made more blacks want to fly.
Most things that we did in those times was first for us, you know, because we didn't think about nobody, no woman driving no airplane, especially no black one. Aunt Bessie was the first. She was the first, and who would think that she wanted to be that? ...
According to the Chicago Tribune - On November 12, 1986, Marion Coleman president of the Bessie Coleman Foundation, announced an essay contest to honor Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in the United States to learn how to fly. The contest was open to Chicago-area students in grades seven through 10 who must write a two- to three-page essay on "Why the United States Post Office should honor Bessie Coleman by putting her picture on a postage stamp."
As a result of Marion Coleman’s commitment, finally on April 27, 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp that featured her aunt - Bessie Coleman.
Bessie Coleman Biography
Born: January 26, 1892
Died: May 1, 1926
African American aviator
Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn an international pilot's license. She dazzled crowds with her stunts at air shows and refused to be slowed by racism (a dislike or disrespect of a person based on their race).
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate (unable to read and write) children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born. In 1901 George Coleman left his family. Bessie's mother and two older brothers went to work and Bessie was left as caretaker of her two younger sisters.
Education for Coleman was limited to eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse that closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton. Coleman easily established her position as family leader, reading aloud to her siblings and her mother at night. She often assured her ambitious church-going mother that she intended to "amount to something." After completing school she worked as a laundress and saved her pay until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University. She left after one year when she ran out of money.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915, when she moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brother, Walter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while continuing to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: to become a pilot.
Learning to fly
After befriending several leaders in South Side Chicago's African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott (1868–1940), publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators (pilots) in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman turned to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. The French, he insisted, were not racists and were the world's leaders in aviation.
Coleman left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.; international pilot's license) license on June 15, 1921. She traveled Europe, gaining further flying experience so that she could perform in air shows.
Back in New York in August 1922, Coleman outlined the goals for the remainder of
Reproduced by permission of the
Intelligent, beautiful, and well spoken, Coleman often exaggerated her already remarkable accomplishments in the interest of better publicity and bigger audiences. As a result, the African American press of the country, primarily weekly newspapers, quickly proclaimed her "Queen Bess."
In 1923 Coleman purchased a small plane but crashed on the way to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The plane was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months. Returning to Chicago to recover, it took her another eighteen months to find financial backers for a series of shows in Texas. Her flights and theater appearances there during the summer of 1925 were highly successful, earning her enough to make a down payment on another plane. Her new fame was also bringing in steady work. At last, she wrote to one of her sisters, she was going to be able to earn enough money to open her school for fliers.
A tragic ending
Coleman left Orlando, Florida, by train to give a benefit exhibition for the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League, scheduled for May 1, 1926. Her pilot, William D. Wills, flew her plane into Orlando, but had to make three forced landings because the plane was so worn and poorly maintained. On April 30, 1926, Wills piloted the plane on a trial flight while Coleman sat in the other cockpit to survey the area over which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day. Her seat belt was unattached because she had to lean out over the edge of the plane while picking the best sites for her program. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the plane dived, then flipped over, throwing Coleman out. Moments later Wills crashed. Both were killed.
Coleman had three memorial services—in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago, the last attended by thousands. She was buried at Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery and gradually, over the years following her death, achieved recognition at last as a hero of early aviation.
For More Information
Borden, Louise. Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman. New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2001.
Fisher, Lillian M. Brave Bessie: Flying Free. Dallas, TX: Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., 1995.
Rich, Doris L. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.