Bessie Coleman – Aviation Pioneer

Our last event for Friday, February 15th, was “Dinner With a Slice of History” at the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) at the Burke Lakefront Airport. In honor of Black Heritage Month, Ms. Gigi Coleman dazzled the audience with a one-woman-show about her great-aunt, the late Ms. Bessie Coleman who, in 1921, became the first African-American woman to obtain an international pilot’s license.

Over the course of the presentation, we learned that Ms. Bessie Coleman, born in 1892 in Texas, was always a risk-taker and was undeterred by the racist roadblocks against people of color at that time. Ms. Gigi Coleman touched on the highpoints her great-aunt’s life. She was so determined to be a pilot that she learned to speak French and worked two jobs in order to earn the money to attend the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She had to go all the way across the ocean because no flight school in the United States would accept a black woman as a pupil. Upon her return to the United States, “Queen Bess” became quite a daredevil aviation superstar until her untimely death in a test flight accident in 1926.

Sadly, she never achieved her dream of starting a her own flight school that would accept both men and women regardless of race but Ms. Gigi Coleman is helping her great-aunt’s dream be realized through the establishment of the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars in Chicago that “offers teens the opportunity to explore the aviation industry. Teachers and tutors give teens a background in math, engineering, aeronautics, science, social science, and the history of African American aviators. Through the apprenticeship, participants build connections between their personal goals and real world experience through hands-on activities, field trips, and professional exposure.

In addition, Ms. Gigi Coleman discussed the tributes that have been bestowed on Ms. Bessie Coleman including her 1995 inclusion in the Black Heritage Stamp series that features such icons as Ms. Billie Holiday, Mr. Jackie Robinson, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over 90 people attended the IWASM program including Mr. George Barrett and Mr. Roy Richardson who both courageously served the United States as Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and Ms. Pat Brady who spent some 12,000 hours in the air reporting traffic conditions and breaking news for Cleveland’s Skyfox.

Also sitting in the front row was our good friend Ms. Marjorie Preston and her young daughter, Emma, who have attended quite a few events at the IWASM. It was neat when Ms. Heather Alexander, the IWASM Executive Director, referred to Emma a couple of times in her opening remarks such as when she asked her if she enjoyed the annual Family Day (upcoming in May) and Emma replied that it was, “Awesome!”