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Lansing Public Library honors Bessie Coleman during Women’s History Month

LANSING, Ill. (March 25, 2024) – Surrounded by discrimination and segregation in the early 1900s, Bessie Coleman found her freedom soaring high in the sky. The Lansing Public Library honored the first African American female aviator with a presentation about her life and achievements on March 20.

“Bessie Coleman is one of those people that we need to be talking about constantly just for the sheer amount of things she did as one of the pioneers in aviation,” said Daniel Cuthbert, Information Services Associate at the Lansing Public Library.

Bessie Coleman
Daniel Cuthbert gave a presentation on Bessie Coleman’s life and achievements to a small crowd on Wednesday evening. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

Early years

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 but moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when she was 2 years old. She was the 10th out of 13 children in her family.

Coleman attended Langston Industrial College for Blacks in Oklahoma but dropped out after one semester due to financial issues.

In 1915, she moved to Chicago and found a job working in a barbershop painting fingernails. This is where she first learned about African American pilots like Eugene Bullard, flying military planes in France during World War I.

“She loved the idea of being able to get up in the air, so she decided that she needed to become a pilot,” Cuthbert said.

Becoming a pilot

Coleman applied to flight schools in the United States. However, she was rejected by everyone because she was Black and a woman.

Her close friend, Robbert Abbott, founder and publisher of the Black-focused newspaper, the Chicago Defender, advised her to apply for schools in France. Coleman’s final decision to go to France came when the 1919 Chicago Race Riots broke out. She saved money and learned French to fill out flight school applications.

Bessie Coleman
Coleman witnessed many plane crashes while enrolled at Caudron Brothers Flying School in France. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

Coleman was accepted into the Caudron Brothers Flying School in Le Crotoy, France, in 1920. The school required students to sign documentation saying they would not be responsible if the students were hurt or killed in a plane while enrolled.

According to Cuthbert, Coleman finished the 10-month program in seven months and received her international pilot license on June 15, 1921.

She then returned to the States to take a job as a pilot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but went back to Europe after the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots started.

Barnstorming and other adventures

While in Europe she learned to become a “barnstormer” pilot. Barnstormers usually traveled across the country, performing aerial stunts, and offering joy rides for a price in a “Curtiss JN Jenny” airplane.

Coleman again returned to the United States in 1922 to pursue a career as a full-time aerial acrobat. She used a “Jenny” plane to perform flying tricks including loops, figure eights, and jumping out of the plane with a parachute while it soared over 1,000 feet in the air.

Bessie Coleman
Coleman decided to use her piloting skills to become an aerial acrobat. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

The aviatrix also used her influence to fight for the rights of Black people. She demanded venues combine segregated entrances into one or she wouldn’t perform.

Daredevil to the end

Coleman bought her own “Jenny” plane on February 10, 1923. Unfortunately, she crashed it a few months later and was severely injured. The accident did not discourage her from returning to the air after fully recovering.

Coleman made an iconic comeback and became known as a daredevil aviatrix. Her infamous stunts led to her getting approached to appear in a movie, but she turned the role down when she learned the character would be dressed in rags.

“She did not want to be seen in that light,” Cuthbert said.

Coleman quickly became famous for her daredevil stunts and was often featured in newspapers. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

Although she wowed audiences with her tricks, her daredevil lifestyle would lead to her untimely death.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman and William Willis, a plane mechanic, took a test flight for her upcoming stunt where she was supposed to do a parachute jump from the plane. As the plane unexpectedly started falling, Coleman fell out because she was not wearing a seat belt. Coleman and Willis both died in the crash.

Legacy

Bessie Coleman dreamed of saving enough money to start a flight school for people like herself. Even though her dream did not happen, Coleman’s legacy and influence have inspired many Black women pilots who came after her.

“She was able to take everything she could get and really make a name for herself,” said Cuthbert in his presentation.

The Lansing Public Library is located at 2750 Indiana Ave in Lansing. To view future events, visit the Library’s event calendar.

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Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan brings local experience and a long list of journalism skills to her work with The Lansing Journal. She understands the need for reliable, factual information in equipping people to build community. An Audio News internship with WBEZ honed her interviewing skills and her sense of timing and deadlines. A native of Calumet City, Kinise is familiar with the interplay of local government, local schools, and local businesses.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great to know that American Women were SOARING… right along with the men, in early 20th century. Go…The Chicago Whip…!

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