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Aviatrix, "Queen Bess"

Born in 1892, Bessie Coleman had a lifelong dream to own an airplane and open a flight school. Growing up as Black and Native American in segregated Texas, this seemed like an impossible dream. But some people don't listen to impossible, and Queen Bess was one of those people.

Bessie worked with her mother picking cotton and washing laundry, as she was one of thirteen children. Bessie earned her way to college, but could only attend one semester due to finances.

While working at a barber shop, Bessie applied to every flight school in the country. She was denied from every one. Why? Color and gender. America was not in the business of teaching women to fly. When her brother returned from the war, he noted how France had many women pilots. This gave Bessie an idea.

The flight schools that accepted women required an application in French. So what did Bessie do? She took night classes to learn French, obviously.

After being accepted to the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921. She was the first Black and first Native American woman to do so. Wild Bess was known for her flying tricks, including the loop the loop and figure 8. She toured and gave presentations about her wild acrobatics. Two years into her career in 1923, she sustained major injuries in her first major plane accident when her engine failed. It took her a long time to recover, but she was back at her dangerous stunts by 1925.

Bessie held firm to her beliefs, and refused to speak anywhere that was segregated. When her hometown asked her to perform, she agreed and was excited by the prospect.

When she arrived and discovered there were two entrances for the attendees, one for Blacks and one for whites, she refused to fly unless they created one gate for all audience members. She stood her ground and the organizers relented.

Bessie was the passenger on a test flight with a mechanic on April 30, 1926 over Jacksonville, Florida. A wrench came loose and lodged in the engine, resulting in the plane flipping and Bessie, not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown 2,000 feet to her death. The mechanic lost control of the plane and crashed near where Bessie died.

Famous activist Ida B Wells performed Bessie's funeral service, and in 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago started a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year.

Bessie left behind a legacy of bravery and fortitude where gender and color would not stop her from reaching her goals, even if the entire country told her no. She contributed to desegregation and the betterment of women all over the country.

Queen Bess is this week's badass woman of history.

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1 Comment

Stacey Schanda
Stacey Schanda
Mar 07, 2023

I love it! I'm going to do more research into her and discuss her with my students. Thank you!

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