Pioneering Black aviator inspires a new age
Bessie Coleman received her aviator’s license before Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. One of her relatives is committed to ensuring the story of the first Black aviator is shared with new generations.
Gigi Coleman created the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars in order to expose disadvantaged children to careers in aviation. The aviator’s great-niece was at the KIPP Bessie Coleman Academy on the Westside, sharing the legacy of her high-flying relative with a new generation.
“If we don’t keep our history, and tell people the story of our relatives, who’s going to do it?” Gigi Coleman asked. “I feel Bessie is such an inspirational woman. That’s why the Barbie inspirational women (series) did a Bessie doll because she inspires us to think of ourselves and be better than what we think we can do.”
In September 1921, Coleman became the first Black person and the first native woman to receive an aviator’s license. She was forced to train in France because flight schools in the segregated U.S. would not accept a Black woman.
“She had hopes, and that brings hope into my heart to make me believe what I want to believe and I can do what I want to do,” said Bessie Coleman Academy student Nytia Blackshear.
Coleman grew up in Texas as the 10th of 13 children. Her family moved north to Chicago during the Great Migration. Two of her brothers were Pullman Porters; another was a cook for Al Capone. Her youngest sister, Georgia, is Gigi’s grandmother.
There are schools named after the aviator in Chicago and Corvallis, Oregon. But, visiting the school in Jacksonville was emotional for Gigi Coleman.
“To be here and at the school named after her is just remarkable,” Coleman said. “Who would have thought that something like this would be in existence?
KIPP Bessie Coleman Academy is a K-8 charter school on the Westside.
When the school grew from an elementary school to include middle school ahead of the 2019-2020 academic year, it polled students, faculty and parents about the new name. The winning selection honored the 20th century aviator who refused to conduct air shows in front of segregated crowds and performed in multiple Florida communities.
The United States Mint honored Coleman as part of its American Women’s Quarters program. It was created to celebrate 20 women in arts, politics, science, literature, aviation and other fields who were trailblazers.
Five women will be celebrated this year. The first Coleman quarters were produced in January and may be in Northeast Florida as soon as next month. Other women celebrated are indigenous Hawaiian composer Edith Kanaka’ole, Mexican-American journalist Jovita Idar and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, as well as civil liberties advocate and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Our coins tell an American story. They reflect who we are and what matters to us as a nation,” said Michelle Thompson, the program manager of the American Women’s Quarter program.
Blackshear and classmate Trudy Merriweather said seeing Gigi Coleman on Thursday morning was a reminder of what is possible. Both are middle schoolers whose knowledge of Black history grows every February.
Being exposed to Black history that was inclusive to women is something Merriweather said was inspiring.
Coleman’s aviation adventures did not last long. She died in April 1926 during a training run for an air show on the Westside. She was 34 years old. The site of her crash is less than 2 miles from the school named in her honor.
“It meant a lot to be able to be here where she actually died,” her great-niece says. “And the kids here at school, it just meant ‘Hey, even though she is gone in spirit, she still exists.’ She’s still inspiring.”
Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.