Bessie Fact And Fiction

Much has been written about Bessie Coleman. Aside from the many children’s books, blogs and web sites dedicated to her there are many homemade video clips about her exploiters. This is understandable, Bessie Coleman is pure magic! People get drawn in by her charisma and want to be a part of it and share it with the world.  But there is a problem – some of what is written is pure fiction! Many get their “facts” from a blog which got their “facts” from an official-looking web site that got there “facts” from a children’s picture book. And the beat goes on. Wanting to pay tribute to Bessie Coleman is admirable, but doing so in a poorly written amateurish manner is disrespectful to her legacy.

For the serious essayist on Bessie Coleman’s life and times there are two noted novelists who are considered authorities on Bessie Coleman. Both did extensive archival research of public records, newspapers, micro film and interviews with living relatives. They are Elizabeth Hadley Freydburg who wrote Brown Skin Ladybird – Studies in African History and Culture, 1994, and Doris Rich who wrote Queen Bessie – Dare Devil Aviator, 1995. These two authors did a remarkable job of fact finding and for the most part their findings coincide with one another. But as in any research of events and times eighty years in the past, there are shades of gray.




Bessie did not have a birth certificate. This is not unusual because many African American births at that time were at home because most hospitals were off limits to Blacks. There is confusion whether she was born in 1892 or 1896. Why? because resourceful Bessie had a habit of changing her birth date whenever she wanted to be younger or older for whatever reasons only she knew.

The world seems to have settled on the year of 1892, (even thou the date on her pilot’s license is 1896). I have no problem with either date. The most important thing of course is she was born and millions of lives were better because of it.




The overwhelming majority of information about Bessie’s parents, from history books to well-meaning web sites, all refer to Bessie’s parents as sharecroppers. Bessie Coleman’s parents were not sharecroppers! This is a matter of halfhearted research and copycat writing. Her parents were smarter that to be pulled into the sharecropping trap that kept people in poverty and tied to the land. Bessie’s Father was a carpenter and her Mother was a domestic. During the cotton harvest the family would pick cotton as a means of earning extra money.




Bessie Coleman did not leave college because she was “struggling with classes”.

On the contrary, she was a brilliant student. She entered college with a sixth grade education and in one year passed through the requirements not only for high school, but one year of college. She was required to study English, Algebra, Latin, Physiology, and Botany. She left college because she and her Mother had only saved up enough money for one year.




Soon after arriving in Chicago Bessie enrolled at Burnham’s School of Beauty Culture where she learned manicuring. She soon landed a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barbershop on the Southside of Chicago. Her brother did not own the shop! One of her brothers was a Specialty Cook and the other was a Train Porter. Both jobs were highly respected and paid well. Bessie briefly managed a chili parlor to earn extra money before embarking on her flying career.




Many stories about Bessie Coleman state she married an older man, friend of one of her brothers. The story has been embellished over the years to the point of a made-up interview with one of Bessie’s nieces verifying the marriage. Author Doris Rich writes she came across a marriage license being issued but no record of a wedding. On the other hand, Bessie always lived at home with family. When interviewed none of her family, including her mother, knew anything about a marriage. Flip a coin but don’t commit it to “facts.”




Bessie Coleman is officially credited with being the first African American to receive an International pilot’s license: in books, on bronze plaques, etched in stone. In reality Bessie was the first person in the world of African descent to receive an International pilot’s license. Restrictive her achievement to “just” American limits the greatness of her deed. Americans, the press included, have a short sighted habit of referring to anyone Black as African American. As a rule this doesn’t sit well with Black people born in France, Japan, Ireland, or any other country in the world.




Bessie never fought in WW1. As ridiculous as it sounds it’s out there in the internet world.

It first appeared in the school project of a well-meaning young child who was probably fooled by photos of Bessie in her flying uniform. Understandable. The frightening part is the child must have had adult supervision helping to researching Bessie Coleman. Even more frightening is that an educator is out there, being paid to teach our children, who reviewed and approved the report! Bessie wore a military style outfit because it was functional and the style of the era of barnstorming pilots.




In 1923 on a short flight to Los Angeles Bessie’s JN4 Jenny airplane stalled soon after take-off at 300 feet. The plane immediately nosed over and crashed. Bessie was seriously injured and spent months in the hospital. This was not unusual in the early days of flying. That year in Los Angeles alone five pilots were killed when the same thing happened. It was a testimony to Bessie’s flying skills she was able to ride the plane in and survive the crash. There is a major difference between crashing an airplane and being involved in a plane crash; and no it is not a `matter of semantics.  Too often it has been written that Bessie crashed her plane, Period, with no explanation as to how or why. This cast doubts about her flying shills, inadvertently or otherwise. Bessie Coleman was a gifted pilot who could fly anything with wings. She proved this many time in Europe where she flew experimental aircraft including the Dornier DO-X Seaplane being designed for commercial air travel. The plane was huge, weighed 52 tons and needed twelve diesel powered engines, delivering 6,000 horsepower, to get it airborne! Bessie Coleman was considered one of best pilots in the world… by the best pilots in the world.




There were a few women pilots during the early years of aviation. Except for Tadashi Hyodo of Japan, all were White and from well-connected families, Amelia Earhart was one of them. Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart were not friends. They never met. In fact, during Bessie’s lifetime there are no records of any White women pilot ever acknowledging her existence! This, of course, is not surprising. They saw Bessie as a threat. Her achievements and talent paled theirs by comparison. This, coupled with the fact she was Black, gave them all the excuses they needed to ignore her.

Amelia Earhart rose to fame because of a planned publicity stunt where she was given a ticker-tape parade for being flown across the Atlantic ocean. America wanted a “courageous” woman pilot  to write about during the early years of aviation and it sure as heck wasn’t going to be a colored woman. This line of reasoning has surfaced more than once in Bessie Coleman’s legacy. For instance, in 1989 (63 years after Bessie’s death) the First Flight Society finally accepted her in there shrine for flyers who achieved “significant first in aviation development” My response to that is “What was there hurry?”




There are many versions of how Bessie died that fateful morning in Jacksonville, Florida on April 30, 1926. Stories say Bessie crash her airplane or Bessie died in a plane crash, or it was during a flying show, or her agent was flying the airplane, or the pilot of the plane was her mechanic. None of this is true.

Bessie Coleman was scouting the fairground from the air where she was to perform a parachute jump the following day. She had the pilot/mechanic, who had delivered the plane from Love Field, Texas earlier, fly so she could better search for a jump area.

Bessie was only 5’3” tall. To better see the field below she unfastened her safety belt to stand up and look over the side of the plane. At that moment, according to eye witnesses on the ground, the plane sundenly flipped over and went into a dive. Bessie was thrown out and fell to her death. Some say the pilot managed to gain control of the plane but hit a tree and crashed. Others say he never did gain control.  The wreckage of the plane was inadvertently set on fire when Bessie’s agent nervously lit a cigarette, igniting the gas fumes. He was arrested by the police but later released.

The cause of the crash was blamed on a loose wrench working its way into the gear box and jamming them. In all the erroneous stories of the events that day it’s fitting that everyone seems to know the exact distance Bessie fell, which of course, no one does. The distance ranges from 200 feet to over 3,000 feet.  Does it really matter?


Gardner Doolittle









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