Bessie Coleman: Black Wings Over France

Hundred years ago, on June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman became the world’s first Black woman pilot. At a time when no school in America was ready to admit a colored student, she earned her license from Le Crotoy in Northern France. Seen today as a pioneer of emancipation of women and Blacks, Bessie Coleman is a legend in the United States.
Bessie Coleman and her Curtiss JN-4 biplane, ca. 1922. © Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

In 1915, Bessie Coleman left the small town of Atlanta, Texas, and the cotton fields where her parents worked, to become a manicurist in Chicago. She would put aside some money every month so that, someday, she could fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. In 1919, no school in the United States was willing to accept a Black student. She had heard about an aviation school at Le Crotoy in France. Thus, after working at the beauty salon during the day, she would study French at night. That year, race riots broke out in Chicago, leaving 38 people dead and hundreds injured. Bessie Coleman made up her mind to use her meagre savings to cross the Atlantic.

When she landed at Le Crotoy, a small fishing town in the Bay of Somme, the local imagination was replete with exotic clichéd images of the Blacks – giraffe women, lip plate Negresses. People recalled the “Negro village,” the star attraction of the 1906 International Exhibition at Amiens. The arrival on the scene of a pretty, young Black woman aroused the interest of the locals but their curiosity was never hostile. The American liked everything about the French town – the colors, the food and the dialect. There, she found happiness and love, even though she missed her sodas and the Charleston.

A Message of Emancipation and Freedom

Bessie Coleman was the only woman and the only Black person in her class of twelve. She was also the brightest and the most conscientious. She earned her license from the International Aeronautical Federation in a record time of seven months. She learnt how to fly on a prototype Nieuport 82.E2. Nicknamed La Grosse Julie, her plane could easily be identified on account of its black wings. Landing, engineering, night flying – she mastered it all. When she returned to the United States, she had nothing left to prove. Finally, she was able to send out the message of emancipation and freedom, and “add some color to the sky.”

Bessie Coleman in 1923. © George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images
A Bessie Coleman stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service on the occasion of Black Heritage Month in 1995. © National Postal Museum

In September 1921, New York journalists gave her a rousing reception. The press was quick to dub her “Queen Bess,” as the young pilot’s legend continued to grow. She wanted to set up an aviation school for all. To raise the money, she barnstormed the U.S. doing air shows. She demanded the organizers ensure desegregated audiences, but that happened rarely. Alas, she did not live long enough to see the fruits of her struggle. On April 30, 1926, while testing her new aircraft in Jacksonville, Florida, the engine failed. The plane went into a dive and then spun around. The unattached Bessie Coleman, 34 years old, was sent plummeting to her death.

In 1929, the first flying school for African Americans opened its doors in Los Angeles, just as the aviator had wanted. Since then, avenues, airports, schools and libraries in the United States and France have been renamed to honor her memory. There is a Rue Bessie Coleman in Paris, in Nice, and in Poitiers. In 2017, the American couple Philip and Tanya Hart were producing a film on the aviator, Flying Free with Bessie Coleman. Philip Hart has written several books on the pioneers of African American aviation and his wife Tanya Hart is a television presenter and producer. Another movie about Bessie Coleman, directed by documentary filmmaker Gardner Doolittle, was released in 2018. Its title? The Legend.

Article initially published in the June 2011 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.