By Steven Thompson
All Jacksonville was abuzz with the news that the one and only black woman licensed to fly an airplane would be performing at an exhibition show at Paxon Field in West Jacksonville on that Friday in 1926.
The event was sponsored by the Negro Welfare League and was to include Bessie Coleman’s death-defying aerial stunts, performed as her plane was flying at an altitude of 2,500 feet above the field.
Coleman was not only in the city to perform, it’s believed she was also here to discuss starring in a movie at Jacksonville’s Norman Studio as a stereotype-breaking aviator.
But neither of those events were to happen. One day before her scheduled show, only 10 minutes into a practice flight, the plane went into a nose dive and began to spin uncontrollably.
Coleman was thrown from the plane and plummeted to her death. She was 34 years old.
“She was a courageous and fearless woman,” Jacksonville activist-scholar Opio Sokoni said of the world-renowned aviator.
Coleman had been born in Atlanta, Texas, on Jan. 26, 1892, the 10th of Susan and George Coleman’s 13 children.
As sharecroppers, she and her family worked in cotton fields to sustain themselves. As a child, Coleman not only worked the cotton fields, she simultaneously completed her school studies in a small segregated school.
In 1915 at the age of 23, Coleman left her family in Texas and moved to Chicago where she lived with a few of her brothers. She sustained herself economically by working as a manicurist.
While in Chicago, Coleman began listening to and reading stories about World War I pilots. These stories inspired the fire deep inside her and ignited her passion for flying.
Coleman then explored the possibility of attending a flight school but was soon disheartened to learn that no such schools existed in the entire country for blacks, Native-Americans or women.
Coleman was never allowed to attend flight school in the United States but she did manage to save enough money to enroll in Langston University located in Oklahoma. There, she attended only one semester due to her depleted funds.
Intelligent, beautiful and well-versed, she drew the attention of Robert S. Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. At his insistence, Coleman saved her money and when she had enough saved, she set out for France.
“I refused to take no for an answer,” she later said.
She chose France because there were no restrictions on who could earn a pilot’s license. In support of Coleman, banker Jesse Binga and Abbott’s newspaper also provided financial support.
In 1921, Coleman faced difficult barriers as an aviator. She broke through those barriers and she became the first woman of black descent to earn a pilot’s license.
In addition, she also became the only black woman to earn an international aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
Coleman quickly became quite a sensation in France and when she returned to the United States, she was the proud owner of a pilot’s license and she was established as an air show pilot.
Coleman, aptly named Queen Bess by the black press, became extremely popular and was widely sought between 1922 and 1926 to conduct interviews and perform at a variety of events and air shows.
It has been said that Coleman was admired by blacks and whites alike. More daring than most men, her flying stunts captured the attention of people around the world and earned her admiration and respect.
For her, flying was freedom.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices,” she once said.
Coleman was most familiar with and mainly flew the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes but she also flew aircraft previously used in World War I.
Her dare-devil days were not without mishaps. On Feb. 22, 1923, during maneuvers, her plane stalled and crashed leaving her with a broken leg and three broken ribs. She required hospitalization for three months.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman caught a train from Orlando to Jacksonville where she was to perform at a benefit exhibition for the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League that was scheduled the following day.
Coleman had recently purchased a used Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas, Texas. The invitation in Jacksonville came from Edwin Beeman who was the son and sole heir of Harry Beeman. Beeman was the owner of the Beeman Chewing Gum Co.
Beeman also gave Coleman the final payment in which to pay off the remainder of the debt so that she became sole owner of the plane.
Coleman’s mechanic and publicity agent, Willam D. Wills, flew the plane from Texas to Orlando but the plane was fraught with problems. He was forced to land numerous times due to the disrepair of the plane.
Wills eventually made it to Jacksonville where he immediately began to make repairs. When family and friends, Abbott included, heard about the poor condition of the plane, they begged Coleman to cancel the Jacksonville air show.
Coleman ignored all their pleas and, on a test, run April 30, 1926, one day before the actual air show, she and Wills took off from Jacksonville’s Paxon Field.
Wills sat at the controls and Coleman sat in the passenger seat. She wore no seat belt as doing so would restrict her from eyeing good spots to parachute land for the May 1, 1926, exhibition air show.
It was later discovered that a wrench used in an attempt to repair the engine of the plane was lodged in the aircraft, jamming the controls and causing the crash.
Three months before her death, Coleman wrote to film producer Richard E. Norman, of Norman Studios in Jacksonville, to suggest that her life be made into a film to be titled “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” It was expected she hoped to meet him during her Jacksonville visit.
After her death, Norman Studios completed a film titled “The Flying Ace” that was inspired by the life of Coleman.
Coleman sought to highlight not only her achievements but those of other minorities and encourage the art of flying.
It also was Coleman’s dream to start a flight school for black flying hopefuls.
Spectators did not attend her show on May 1, 1926, instead they filed through the Lawton L. Pratt Funeral home in Jacksonville to pay last respects to “Queen Bess.”
Two memorial services in Jacksonville were held where scores of people came out to say goodbye. One was held at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church and the other at St. Phillip Episcopal Church.
The casket bearing her body was then loaded onto a train and transported back to her adopted family in Orlando. There, an additional memorial service was held at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
Coleman’s remains were then shipped to Chicago where they were placed in a United States flag-draped casket. She was then given a military escort by six uniformed pallbearers who were overseas veterans assigned to the African-American Eight Infantry.
Ida B. Wells Barnett was the mistress of ceremonies at what would be Coleman’s last and final stop. She was buried in Lot 580, Section 9 of Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery.
Coleman has been honored posthumously in many ways since her untimely death. Libraries and streets have been named in her honor. Roads at O’Hare, Oakland and Tampa International Airports are named in her honor.
In addition, several scholarships have been established in her honor for high school seniors pursuing careers in aviation.
The U.S. Postal Service honored her by introducing the 32-cent Bessie Coleman postage stamp.
In 2006, Coleman was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame and in 2012, a bronze plaque bearing her likeness was mounted on the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies.
Steve Grossman, CEO of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, expressed his desire to place a plaque to honor aviators at the Jacksonville International Airport.
In addition, after a resolution that was presented by the Jacksonville City Council to honor Coleman, Sokoni did more research, and based on additional findings, he wrote a movie script on Coleman’s life that is a work in progress.
Every year since 1931, on the anniversary of her death, black pilots fly over Coleman who is buried in Lot 580, Section 9, in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery to drop flowers in her honor.