Monday, February 04, 2008

Black History Month: Pioneers, Part II

We explored the Arctic with Matthew Henson in our previous post; let's explore the friendly skies with Bessie Coleman.

When Bessie Coleman worked as a manicurist at a Chicago barber shop, she would listen to World War I pilots talking about their airplanes and flying experiences. Always having an inquisitive and adventurous spirit, she sought out opportunities to take flying lessons. Despite having patronage and publicity, no American flight school would admit her; undeterred, Coleman ventured abroad to France for flight instruction. She would also learn barnstorming, which was hugely popular at the time.

Coleman returned to the States in 1921, to great acclaim and recognition as being the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. Her air shows drew large crowds of all races.

In 1926, Bessie sat unbuckled in a recently purchased plane; because she was preparing a parachute jump, she remained unfastened in order to look at the ground below (her mechanic/publicist was at the helm). For unknown reasons, the plane did not recover from a planned tailspin; Coleman was thrown from the plane, and the pilot, William Willis, also died when the plane crashed. 5000 people paid their respects at her funeral.

Nikki Grimes, the celebrated children's poet, tells the story of Coleman's life in emotionally rich verse. The poems are written in the voice of a multitude of people, such asColeman's parents, who were among Coleman's survivors, her siblings, teacher, flight school classmate, and instructor, among others. While readers seeking to do a report on Coleman will need to look further for more information, Talkin' About Bessie is a beautiful biography of a fascinating woman.

Bessie Coleman website

Bessie Coleman foundation

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