Shadow In The Clouds-The Bessie Coleman Story
"The air is the only place free from prejudices".-Bessie Coleman
This is the unknown revalations about Bessie Coleman. Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviatorthe age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the futureshe would need to become a "barnstorming" stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.
"Queen Bess," as she was known was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flier" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuversincluding figure eights, loops, and near-ground dipsto a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).
But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman's dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day "amount to something." As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
Bessie Coleman, c.1922
Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. "Clearly ... [Bessie's] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks", wrote Doris Rich.
Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. "Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream". Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman, was in Jacksonville. She recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow. Her friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. Coleman did not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a dive; instead it spun. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground. William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine slid into the gearbox and jammed it. She was 34 years old.
Legacy and honors
Her funeral in Jacksonville, Florida on May 2, 1926 was attended by 5,000 mourners. Many of them, including Ida B. Wells, were prominent members of black society. Three days later, her remains arrived in Orlando, Florida, where thousands more attended a funeral at the city's Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Three days later her remains went to Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church. An estimated 10,000 people filed past the coffin all night and all day. After funeral services, she was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.
Her impact on aviation history, and particularly African Americans in aviation, quickly became apparent following her death. In 1927, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout the country. On Labor Day, 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Coleman's grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. Coleman's name also began appearing on buildings in Harlem. In 1989, First Flight Society inducted Coleman into their shrine that honors those individuals and groups that have achieved significant "firsts" in aviation's development.
A second-floor conference room at the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., is named after Coleman. In 1990, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O'Hare International Airport "Bessie Coleman Drive." In 1992, he proclaimed May 2 to be "Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago".
Mae Jemison, physician and former NASA astronaut, wrote in the book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993): "I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying."
In 1995, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1999 she was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
In November 2000, Coleman was inducted in The Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
The Berkeley Black Repertory Group (BRG) began in 1964 as a church drama club, later moving into storefront building as a community theater in South Berkeley. In 1971, the group became a non-profit corporation and received their 501 (C) (3) designation. BRG has been acclaimed for its work with youth through performing arts and for its "New Arts" program which one-act plays by new local playwrights are produced. In 1987, BRG moved into their current location which is a cultural arts center that contains a large exhibition lobby, courtyard, meeting & rehearsal space, and a beautiful 250-seat theater auditorium with adjoining dressing rooms.
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