How Bessie Made the Skies Big

You couldn’t say no to Bessie Coleman.

Well, you could. But she wouldn’t accept it. That wasn’t her style.

Maybe she was like that from birth. Which happened on January 26, 1892 in an unincorporated patch of Texas called Atlanta. Her parents were George and Susan. He was Choctaw. She was African-American. They were both sharecroppers.

In the winters, Bessie Coleman went to a one-room schoolhouse where she aced math. In the summers, she went to the cotton fields where she called out the boss when he tried to short her family’s pay. And all the while, she knew that a little patch of Texas wasn’t the world she wanted to live in.

When she was 23, Ms. Coleman packed her life into bags and took the Rock Island train to Chicago to find a world she did want.

She worked as a manicurist on the South Side. Managed a chili parlor at 35th and Indiana Avenue. And got interested, very interested in flying.

All the American flight schools shut her out. The skies, in their eyes, were for white men. But the skies, in Bessie Coleman’s eyes, could be a whole lot bigger than that.

So in November 1920, Ms. Coleman packed her life into bags again and got on a boat to France. There was a school there, the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudon, that taught women.

And eleven months later, after countless tailspins and looping the loops in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, after walking nine miles daily to flight school, Ms. Coleman got on a boat to America with the first pilot’s license issued to an African-American woman.

She did it as she did everything: By refusing, as she said, “to take no for an answer.”

Ms. Coleman barnstormed the United States doing “heart-thrilling” stunts for packed air shows. When venues segregated entrances, she refused to perform. When she crashed, she proclaimed to the world and to gravity itself, “As soon as I can walk, I’m going to fly.”

Her plan was to buy a plane of her own. Start an African-American flight school.

But it was all cut short in April 1926 when she fell from an open cockpit over Jacksonville. Some 15,000 people came to the funeral. There would be a stamp and a street and a school with her name on them. And there would be many who would follow in her contrails.

Today, the skies – and the world below them – are a whole lot bigger. And there are many reasons why.

But one is that Bessie Coleman from a little patch of unincorporated Texas refused to take no for an answer.

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