Bessie Coleman’s great-niece continues on in her legacy

By TONIA HILL
Staff Writer

Gigi Coleman, the great niece of Bessie Coleman the world’s first African-American woman to become a licensed pilot in the 1920s is continuing the legacy of her great Aunt.

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 6:30 p.m., Coleman will be at the Blackstone Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., to present her one woman production “The Life of Bessie Coleman,” which is a reenactment of the life of Bessie Coleman famed and beloved aviator.

Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 in Texas the 10th of 13 children to a family of sharecroppers.

After she completed high school, she attended Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, which is now known as Langston University she spent a year there before coming to Chicago in 1915.

Coleman dreamed of flying planes after hearing tales from soldiers returning from World War I. When she attempted to enroll in flying school she was refused admission because she was both black and a woman.

Coleman was advised to attend an international aviation school in France, she learned French and saved money and then set off to Paris from New York in 1920. It took seven months to learn to fly, and in 1921 the Federation Aeronautique Internationale awarded her with an international pilot’s license.

Upon her return to the states, she was nicknamed “Queen Bess.” Coleman performed in numerous air shows. She refused to perform at locations that would not admit African Americans.

In 1926 while rehearsing for an air show in Jacksonville, Fla. an unsecured wrench got caught in the control gears, Coleman who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the plane and died instantly upon hitting the ground.

The airplane crashed and also killed the mechanic who was on the plane with her. She was 34.

Coleman said that it was her late mother Marion Coleman, who pushed to keep Bessie’s memory alive following her tragic death.

Her mother petitioned for a U.S. Postal stamp in her honor. The commemorative stamp was issued in April of 1995 in Chicago, and it depicts, Bessie in a leather helmet and goggles.

When her mother died, Coleman said she took on the role of keeping her Aunt Bessie’s story alive.

“I need to keep the legacy going by my great aunt just like [my mom] did,” said Coleman.

Encouragement from her husband helped in launching Coleman’s one-woman production. Her husband told her that her interpretation of her aunt’s life would be different than others because she had grown up listening to first-hand accounts from her mother and her grandmother about her great aunt.

Coleman set out and launched her one-woman production in 2013, and began to share the stories that she heard about her aunt’s life to the masses. Four years later, she has done 20 or more shows across the nation.

The most rewarding part of reenacting her aunt’s life is to witness the reaction of children and adults who come to see her performance.

Some of the children have said to Coleman that they want to be aviators and fly planes like Bessie Coleman.

Coleman is also looking to inspire the next generation, she founded a program for students who wish to have careers in aviation.

The program called Bess Coleman Aviation All-Stars is designed to teach students the principles of aeronautics, a career path in aviation and to explore historical and cultural aviation figures.

The program operates in the fall and spring semesters at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy High School, 250 E. 111th St., and it is partnered with the After School Matters program.

“I am inspiring kids to think of other avenues that they can go into besides the arts and entertainment,” she said.

To date, 60 youth between the ages of 14 and 21 have been enrolled in the program.

Coleman said she would like to expand the program to reach more children who are not students at Brooks.

t.hill@hpherald.com