Bessie Coleman

Just in case for a future story about aviation, I post this article, which originally appeared on the Goldenbird blog. (The comic would feature Mayann going to a pilot school in Paris, a mysterious Finnish ace, a spy plot that Falco tries to unravel, and some of our mischievous Italian friends...)

The first black American pilots were trained in France in the 1910’s and 1920’s. No American aviation school would accept them. Among these pioneers, Bessie Coleman was the first woman. She is another source of inspiration for Goldenbird's leading lady Mayann, and indeed for any pioneering woman in reality and fiction.

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta and grew up in Chicago in the 1910's. She became inspired by the stories of soldiers returning from the Great War in Europe. With her own hard-earned money (she worked as a manicurist) she wouldn't have made it far, but some well-off Chicago African-Americans provided her with financial support, realizing her PR value.
Learning to fly was a challenge for the nerves in 1920. One French school refused to enroll Bessie, because it had already lost two female students in deadly crashes. During her training at the Ecole d'Aviation des Frères Caudron, Bessie was shocked by the death of a fellow student. Her dream of flying would demand hard work and sacrifices from her in life.
In 1921 Bessie earned her flight certificate and returned to the USA, where a showbiz rumble was awaiting her. Throughout her career as a performer, she refused to attend aviation shows with segregated audiences. Tragically, her life ended much too soon, like Florence Mills's in the previous post. In 1926, one year before Mills, she died in a flight accident along with her mechanic.
Bessie Coleman left a legacy that was very much appreciated in the African-American community in her time (10,000 mourners attended her funeral in Chicago, and another pioneer, William J. Powell, founded the Bessie Coleman Flying School in her honour), but has only in the last decades become wider known. The first time I wrote about Bessie, a year and a month ago, I couldn't seem to find so much information about her. Now I have found not only one, but three inspirational children's books about her life! (Fly High - Nobody Owns The Sky - Fly, Bessie, Fly!) There is also a lovely action figure still available. The actress and professional storyteller Joanna Maddox also appears in one of her children's shows as Bessie Coleman.
For schools (and why not adults?), there's poet Nikki Grimes' Talkin' About Bessie, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, and decorated with multiple awards.

There are hints on the web about a biopic with Angela Basset, supposedly filmed in 1998 or 1999: Wings Against The Wind, with a dreamy cast of Danny Glover, Gerard Dépardieu, Don Cheadle and others. I don't know if this film was ever made, since there is no definite information about it anywhere. Pity!

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