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Once upon a time, there was a girl who could fly a plane upside down, sideways, and in loop-de-loops. Her name was Bessie Coleman, and she was the very first Black female pilot. She figured out how to make old, rickety planes do amazing things. Bessie pushed the limits of the sky and inspired aviators for years to come.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Camille Stennis. Sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. This story was written by Jestine Ware and narrated by Doreen Oliver. Haley Dapkus was our Associate Producer. Our Executive Producer was Katie Sprenger. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. A big thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team who makes this show possible! For more, visit rebelgirls.com. Until next time, stay REBEL!
Once upon a time… there was a girl who had her eyes on the sky…
Her name… was Bessie Coleman.
It’s the early 1920s, and Bessie has arrived at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France – with a spring in her step and a flutter in her belly. Today is her first time taking the plane up, up into the sky!
She stands before the rickety-looking plane made of wood, wire, steel, aluminium, cloth, and pressed cardboard. Planes were very different back then. It doesn’t have breaks, or a steering wheel. It looks like it’ll never make it off the ground.
She takes her time checking over the plane.
Are all the wires connected properly?… Check.
Does the engine make a healthy roar without sputtering?… Check.
Are the tires of the landing gear full of air?… Check.
The cloth wings are smooth and free of rips, and the propellers whizz so fast when she gets them spinning that Bessie can barely see the blades.
She climbs into the cockpit with her instructor in the seat behind her and secures her goggles over her eyes. She motions to the mechanic to start the plane…
The engine roars to life with a rumbling sound as it lets off oily… yellow… fumes.
It’s so loud, she can barely hear her teacher.
She sets her hands firmly on the vertical stick that would help her steer, and places her feet on the rudder bar that controls the plane’s direction.
As they begin to move the plane shakes like it’s going to come apart, but it obeys Bessie. It lifts off the ground and glides into the air. Gusts of wind buffet the plane from both sides… But no matter what the wind does, Bessie stays in the air with the clouds and the birds at her side… like new friends.
When she was a child, Bessie was very clever, and she did not like hearing the word “No.” She wanted to go to school instead of playing with dolls at home. But her mother would not let her attend until her younger siblings were old enough to go, too.
It was the late 1800s, and instead of picking cotton outside, under the hot Texas sun, Bessie wanted to stay inside, reading her books. But she still had to help her family. In fact, she cleverly added to the family’s cotton picking total, by placing her foot on the weighing scale.
Bessie also had a head for math… and when she was older, she wanted to go to college.
But she only completed one semester before she ran out of money for tuition. She ended up having to wash laundry to earn a living, instead…
But Bessie didn’t let any negativity get her down. In fact, all of her reading made her more sure that she had to get out of Texas, and forge her own path…
“You can’t make a race horse out of a mule,” her mother said one day. “If you stay a mule, you’ll never win the race.”
“I’ll win, Mama,” Bessie said. “I’m a race horse, not a mule.”
She could almost hear the hoofbeats…
Bessie worked hard to save up every extra penny she could so that by the age of 23, she could leave her dusty, old town..
She set out for Chicago, riding in the Jim Crow Car of the train, sitting on a hard wooden bench–the only place Black people were allowed to sit in 1915.
Her brothers, Walter and John, were more than happy to welcome their little sister into their small apartment on Chicago’s South Side, where most Black folks lived.
Most Black women were washerwomen, cooks, or maids. But Bessie didn’t want to do any of those things. So she went to beauty school to learn to be a manicurist…
One day, a twenty-seven-year-old Bessie sat at her work station arranging her tools… when her brother, John, walked in. He gave her a big, silly grin and started teasing his baby sister with his war stories.
“Black women ain’t never goin’ to fly,” he told her. “Not like those women I saw in France.”
The barbershop erupted into laughter. But when the sound died away… Bessie grinned back at her brother.
“That’s it!” she said. “You just called it for me.”
Bessie set her tools aside with an edge of determination in her eyes… She was going to be… a pilot.
Bessie did her research and talked to as many pilots as she could. They were all white men, and none of them would teach her.
Instead of giving up, Bessie went to the most powerful person she knew: the editor and founder of her favorite newspaper. She marched up the steps of the Chicago Defender office to ask for his advice.“You must go to France,” Robert Abbott said. “The French are world leaders in aviation, and they won’t discriminate against you because you’re a Black woman.”
Bessie had a lot of work ahead of her!
She started taking night classes to learn French, and got a better paying job. She told a few rich people about her dream, and they decided to fund her adventure. She found an aviation school that would admit her in France, secured her passport and visa, and hopped on a boat…
Bessie stood on the deck of the boat, with the salty sea spray blowing against her face. Excitement swelled in her chest as she watched the sky… Soon, she’d be up there… among the fluffy clouds…
Flying felt better than Bessie ever could have imagined. But her first landing, during her first lesson, was a little bit scary.
The plane headed for the ground at a gentle slope. Her instructor told her to turn off the engine, and she looked at him like he was crazy. But she did as he asked…
The plane bounced against the ground as the landing gear made impact. She lowered the tail so that it scraped against the ground. The tail made a horrible squealing sound and kicked up lots of dust in the air, until the plane skidded to a shaky stop.
Bessie’s legs felt like jelly when she climbed back out.
After each lesson, Bessie grew more and more confident. The shaking, shuddering, and loud noises didn’t bother her anymore. She was even brave enough to try a few simple tricks, like flying the plane on its side, loop-de-loops, and figure eights.
Then, came the big test day. After seven months of lessons and intense practice, Bessie was ready to try for her pilot’s license.
She flew around the course twice, and then climbed way up high, until the air grew chilly, even through her brown leather coat. Her gloved hands guided the controls in a figure eight as if it were second nature.
Finally, she tipped the nose back toward the ground, turned off the engine, and skidded to a stop on the runway. She passed with flying colors!
Bessie had just become the first Black woman in the entire world, to be an aviator. Now, she could fly anywhere her heart desired…
Bessie couldn’t work as a commercial pilot in the United States, but that didn’t get her down! She decided to join the ranks of stunt fliers called “barnstormers” who made money by doing performances.
She went back to France to learn more fancy flying tricks that defied gravity, and purchased her very own plane.
And when she returned to America again, she was ready to launch her live airshow!
Bessie strapped on her goggles and waved cheerfully at a crowd of 3,000 people. She hopped in the pilot’s seat and the engine roared to life, jolting her forward.
As she picked up speed, the wings of the plane and the wind underneath them, carried her into the clear, sunny sky…
Bessie flew up and up. She did a few lazy figure eights, but then her plane seemed to spiral out of control. It headed toward the ground wildly. Someone in the crowd screamed! But at the last second, Bessie pulled the nose up, and laughed into the air as the crowd exploded into applause.
Next, Bessie landed and picked up an aerial acrobat who surprised the audience by climbing out on the wing of Bessie’s plane to walk about as if it were a sidewalk. The crowd gasped. They couldn’t believe it!
Then she picked up a second acrobat, who unfurled a rope like a kite string and climbed up and down it even as it whipped in the wind. The last stunt performer to join Bessie’s show was her little sister, Georgia, who leapt out of the plane with a parachute on her back. She pulled the cord and floated gently to the ground, safe and unharmed…
At some shows, Bessie raced other pilots and at others she spun in dizzying circles so fast onlookers could barely believe their eyes. Young pilots clambered to learn from “Queen Bess.” She taught them all she could and planned on opening her own flight school someday.
Bessie hoped to inspire more Black women to take to the skies.
And she did! Bessie passed away at age 34 doing exactly what she loved and thousands of people came to pay their respects to Queen Bess. Later, a man named William J. Powell, who also loved to fly, actually started the flight school Bessie always dreamed about, and named it after her. It was called the Bessie Coleman Aero Club and many Black pilots were trained there. Decades later a group of Black female pilots began the Bessie Coleman Aviation Club. And in Chicago, where Bessie first dreamed of flying a park is named after her.
Bessie’s story of perseverance and talent continues to inspire pilots. She is a legend. And although her time was short – as Bessie said, you haven’t lived, til you’ve flown.