In Forest Park, as we look back at a century of the Forest Park Review, we celebrate our connection to Charles Lindbergh, who bunked here, while flying out of Checkerboard Field (now Miller Meadow). However, there was another illustrious pilot who flew from this nearby airstrip: Bessie Coleman. Now that we’re segueing from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, it’s appropriate to honor this pioneering aviator.
Coleman’s story is especially remarkable when you consider her origins. She was part African-American, part Native-American and grew up a sharecropper’s daughter in Texas. Bessie was working in the cotton fields when she wasn’t walking four miles to a one-room school. She did well there and even completed a year of college.
Coleman got the flying bug early but found there were no flight schools in the U.S. that would give lessons to a woman, much less a mixed-race woman. She moved to Chicago in 1916 at the age of 23, where she worked two jobs to save up money for a trip to France. She studied French before traveling to Paris. In 1921, Coleman became the first woman ever of her background to hold a pilot’s license.
After she earned her license, she remained in France for two months to take lessons from a French WWI ace. By the time she returned to the States, Bessie Coleman was an international sensation. She was quoted as saying, “The air is the only place free from prejudices. Race needed to be represented, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
She was still barred from learning it in the U.S., so she returned to Europe for more training. She was determined to become a barnstorming stunt flier. The Fokker Corporation of Germany assigned one of its top pilots to teach her. After polishing her skills, Coleman was billed as, “the world’s greatest woman flier.”
Back in New York, she performed her first air show for soldiers of an African-American army unit. Then in 1922, she gave a thrilling performance at Checkerboard Airdrome. Coleman executed figure eights, loops and low-altitude flying, where her wings skimmed the ground. She was cheered by a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Coleman gained a reputation as a pilot who would stop at nothing to perform a difficult stunt. Her daredevil determination almost cost her life. Her plane stalled during a Los Angeles air show and she crashed, breaking her leg and three ribs.
Coleman became popular with whites as well as blacks. She also had movie star looks and was offered the starring role in a feature-length film. But she walked off the set when the role required her to dress in tattered clothing. She refused to portray the negative image many whites had of blacks at that time.
Bessie Coleman’s dream was to start an aviation school for women and minorities, but she didn’t live long enough to see it come true. On April 30, 1926, Coleman and a co-pilot were testing a new plane when it suddenly plunged into a diving spin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 feet. Her co-pilot was also killed on impact. In the wreckage it was discovered that a wrench used to repair the plane had jammed the controls.
Coleman’s dream may have died, but her example motivated African-American men and women to take to the sky. In 1938, Cornelius R. Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics at an airstrip at Harlem and 87th. There he trained white and black students, including some pilots who would later join the Tuskegee Airmen.
Bessie Coleman, the sharecropper’s daughter, who became the toast of Paris, would have been proud.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.