WAXAHACHIE — Destiny has a fickle path of fulfillment, much in the same way as a legacy can go decades before receiving the “lasting” effect it deserves. Often times, dreamers spend an entire lifetime chasing the immortality that comes with the two, only to fall short.
Then, there are those like Bessie Coleman who soar into greatness.
As her placard, commissioned in 2001 by the Texas Historical Commission that now resides in the Freedman Memorial Plaza, states, Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on Jan. 26, 1892. Although unbeknownst at the time, or even after her family relocated to Waxahachie three years later, Coleman was destined to fly — and not just over borders or farmland.
Long before becoming “Queen Bess,” Coleman attended Oak Lawn School on Wyatt Street in Waxahachie, just a few blocks north of where her historical marker now resides under a full Texas sky. Between occasional work in fields around the county or reading to one of her 13 siblings, as an article in the Ellis County Museum states, “somewhere along the way, Bessie became infatuated with airplanes.”
The untitled article goes on to tell of Coleman boarding a Chicago-bound train at the M-K-T Railroad station in Waxahachie. Once in the Windy City, Coleman found work as a trained manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. As the article explains, it was in the barbershop where Coleman met Robert Arnold, an editor of a Chicago newspaper, who — after she confided a desire to fly — encouraged the 23-year-old Texan to pursue the dream at a flight school in France.
“Since there were no flight schools in this country that would teach African American women, Coleman learned to fly in France and obtained her international pilot’s license in 1921,” reads her historical plaque in Waxahachie. “Upon her return to the United States, she was hailed as the first black woman pilot. Extremely popular, ‘Queen Bess,’ as she was known, performed as a barnstormer for integrated audiences at air shows and exhibitions around the country.”
Although there are several variances to the quote itself, Coleman once claimed, “the air is the only place free from prejudices.”
The museum biography notes Coleman frequently visited schools and churches to “encourage young black men and women to enter aviation. On one occasion in Waxahachie, she refused to give an exhibition on white school grounds unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance as whites. The request was granted, although the races remained segregated once inside.”
According to a Daily Light article published Sept. 7, 2015, the exhibition was performed Sept. 26, 1925, on the then-Trinity University athletic fields, which is now home to Southwestern Assemblies of God University. The article also notes that in 2015 there was a reenactment and plaque dedicated at Mid-Way Regional Airport in Midlothian in honor of the exhibition’s 90th anniversary.
It was an airplane that helped Coleman fulfill the legacy she was always destined to find. However, on April 30, 1926, it was also an aircraft that took the life of the pioneer. Coleman was 34 years old when her plane crashed during a test flight in Jacksonville, Florida.
Although unconfirmed, a safe bet could be placed that the aviatrix did not take to the sky in search of recognitions. Her legacy is not left on one of the plaques scattered across the country, a commissioned stamp by the United States Postal Service in 1995, celebrated in Chicago during “Bessie Coleman Day,” or, most recently, found on the front page of Google in honor of her 125th birthday.
Coleman found freedom in the clouds. In her aircraft, “Brave Bess” was free of oppression, hate and the ignorance of racism.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith