From the Archives by Mitch Hemann
Late in the month of January 2021 would have been Bessie Coleman’s 129th birthday. Many are familiar with the daring exploits of America’s first Black female aviatrix, but less are aware of how her extraordinary life ended in Jacksonville, Florida.
Coleman was born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to George and Susan Coleman. The child of sharecroppers, Bessie often dreamed of a better life. In 1910, she enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma, but was forced to leave early after running out of money. In 1915, Coleman had an opportunity to move in with her brothers in Chicago and she jumped at the chance.
Coleman found work as a manicurist in an area on the south side known as The Stroll, but it was her brothers who inspired her to fly. Both had served in World War I and they would tell Bessie stories of French women flying planes overseas. Bessie was determined to do the same.
Because no school in America would teach a Black woman to fly, Bessie left for France to attend the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy in the Somme. She received her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) on June 15, 1921.
Coleman travelled the nation performing air shows and giving lectures, saving money along the way to purchase her very own plane. When the final payment was made on her JN-4 (or Jenny), she prepared to have it flown from Dallas to Florida for a performance scheduled in Jacksonville on May 1, 1926 sponsored by the Negro Welfare League. That performance was not meant to be.
On the evening of April 30, Coleman and pilot William Willis decided to take the plane on a test flight in Paxon Field. While in the air, the plane malfunctioned and Willis lost control. Bessie was in the backseat without a seatbelt and was thrown from the cockpit. She fell to her death.
Coleman’s body was brought to the Lawton L. Pratt funeral home and thousands of mourners attended two services that were held for her in Jacksonville; the first at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church and a second at St. Philips Episcopal Church.
There’s an interesting footnote to this story that makes it all the more intriguing. Coleman’s manager, D. Ireland Thomas, was well acquainted with the Jacksonville filmmaker Richard Norman, and wrote to Norman weeks before the crash encouraging him to make a film about Coleman. It’s unlikely the two ever met, but Norman’s only surviving film, The Flying Ace, was released later that year. One can’t help but wonder the impact Coleman’s accomplishments had on him.