I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember with People in America in VOA Special English.
Today we tell about Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman pilot.
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in eighteen ninety-two.
Her mother was African American. Her father was part African American and part
American Indian. Her family was poor. Bessie had to walk more than six
kilometers to go to school. When she was nine years old, her father left the
family to search in Oklahoma for the territory of his Indian ancestors.
In Texas then, as in most areas of the
American South, black people were treated unfairly. They lived separately from
white people and established their own religious, business and social
traditions. Bessie was proud of her race. She learned that from her
hard-working and religious mother.
Bessie had to pick cotton and wash clothes to help earn money for
her family. She was able to save a little money and went to college in the
state of Oklahoma. She was in college only one year. She had to leave because
she did not have enough money to complete her studies. But during that year,
she learned about flying. She read about the first flight of the Wright
Brothers and the first American female pilot, Harriet Quimby. Bessie often
thought about what it would feel like to fly like a bird.
When she was
twenty-three, Bessie Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois to live with two of her
older brothers. There, she worked at
several jobs. But she wanted to do something more important. She heard stories from pilots who were
returning from World War One. She
decided she was going to learn how to fly airplanes. She soon found this to be almost impossible. What flight school
would admit a black woman?
that apparently there were none in the United States. Bessie learned that she
would have a better chance in Europe. She began to study French at a language
school in Chicago. She also took a higher-paying job supervising a public
eating place so she could save money.
Soon after the end of World War One, Bessie Coleman left for
France. She attended the famous flight school, Ecole d'Aviation des Freres
Caudron, in the town of Le Crotoy in northern France. She learned to fly in a
plane that had two sets of wings, one over the other. She completed seven
months of flight training. Coleman earned her international permit to fly in
nineteen twenty-one from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France.
She became the first black woman ever to earn an international pilot's license.
Coleman returned to Chicago. She was the only black female pilot
in the United States. So her story became popular in African American
newspapers. She was asked by the Dallas Express newspaper in Texas why she
wanted to fly. She said that women and blacks must have pilots if they are to
keep up with the times. She added: "Do you know you have never lived until
you have flown. "
Coleman soon learned that it was difficult
for anyone to earn enough money as a pilot to live. She knew she would have to
improve her flying skills and learn to do more tricks in the air if she wanted
to succeed. There still was no one willing to teach her in Chicago. So, she
returned to Europe in nineteen twenty-two. She completed about four more months
of flight training with French and German pilots.
Coleman returned to New York where she gave her first public
flying performance in the United States. A large crowd of people gathered to watch her. She rolled the plane. And
she stopped the engine and then started it again just before the plane landed.
The crowd loved her performance. So did
other crowds as she performed in towns and cities across the country.
Bessie Coleman had proved she could fly. Yet
she wanted to do more. She hoped to establish a school for black pilots in the
United States. She knew she needed a plane of her own. She traveled to Los
Angeles, California, where she sought the support of a company that sold tires.
The company helped her buy a Curtiss JN-Four airplane, commonly called a Jenny.
In return, she was to represent the company at public events.
Bessie Coleman organized an air show in Los Angeles. But the
Jenny's engine stopped soon after take-off, and the plane crashed to the
ground. Coleman suffered a broken leg and other injuries. She regretted the
accident and felt she had disappointed her supporters. She sent a message:
"Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I'm going to fly!"
Coleman returned to Chicago where she
continued her plan to open a flying school. She had very little money, no job
and no plane, yet she opened an office in Chicago. She soon found it was
impossible to keep the office open without more financial support. So she
decided to return to flying.
In nineteen twenty-five, Bessie Coleman traveled to her home state
of Texas. The former cotton picker and beauty technician now was the only
licensed black woman pilot in the world. She could speak French. And she was an
To earn money, Bessie Coleman gave speeches and showed films of
her flights. She did this in churches, theaters and at local all-black public
schools. She organized more air shows. She soon had enough money to pay for
some of the cost of a plane of her own, another old Curtiss Jenny. She
continued her speeches and air shows in the state of Georgia, then in Florida.
She hoped to earn enough money to open her school.
In Florida, Coleman met Edwin Beeman, whose
father was the head of a huge chewing gum company. Mister Beeman gave her the
money to make the final payment on her plane in Dallas. Coleman made plans to
have it flown to her in Jacksonville, Florida. A young white pilot, William
Wills, made the trip.
But the old Jenny had problems. Wills had
to make two stops during the short flight to repair the plane. Local pilots who
examined the plane were surprised he had been able to fly it so far.
On April thirtieth, nineteen twenty-six, Coleman was preparing for
an air show in which she would star. She agreed to make the flight with William
Wills. He flew the plane so she could clearly see the field she would fly over.
She did not use any safety devices, such as a
seat belt or parachute. They would have prevented her from leaning over to see
all of the field. During the flight, the plane's controls became stuck. The
plane turned over in the air. Nothing was holding Coleman in. She fell more
than a kilometer to her death. Wills had worn a seat belt. But he also died
when the plane crashed.
Officials later found the cause of the
accident. A tool had slid into the controls of the plane. Experts said that the
accident would not have happened if Wills and Coleman had been flying a newer
and safer plane.
Throughout her life, Bessie Coleman had resisted society's
restrictions against blacks and women. She believed that the air is the only
place where everyone is free. She wanted to teach other black people about that
It took some time until her wish was
fulfilled. It was not until nineteen thirty-nine that black students were
permitted to enter civilian flight schools in the United States.
not until the Second World War that black male pilots were sent into battle.
And, it was not until nineteen eighty that the first black women completed
military pilot training in the United States.
Bessie Coleman did not live to establish her own flying
school. But she had said that if she could create the minimum of her plans and
desires, she would have no regrets. She had accepted the dangers of her job
because she loved flying.
Her influence continues today. In nineteen
ninety-two, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution praising her. It said:
"Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands, even millions of
young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude and her
determination to succeed. " In nineteen thirty-four, Lieutenant William
Powell wrote a book called “Black Wings.” He wrote: "Because of
Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than racial barriers.
We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream. "
This program was written by Vivian Chakarian. It was produced by
Lawan Davis. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for People in America
in VOA Special English.