BATTLE CREEK, Mich. –
Black history was brought to life by Chicago-based educator Gigi Coleman during a public presentation at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, Feb. 28.
Coleman, the great niece of “hidden figure” daredevil pilot Bessie Coleman, channeled her great aunt in period aviation garb during a narrative performance for a packed room of Defense Logistics Agency personnel and more than 80 local high school students as part of the agency’s Black History Month observance.
“I knew, deep in my heart, there was something else I could do in my life,” Coleman said as she role-played an outline of Bessie’s short but groundbreaking, skyscraping life.
Born into a large, impoverished family in Texas in 1892, Coleman learned to read and attended college in Oklahoma for a short period before the cost forced her to return home. Later, she migrated to Chicago, where she attended beauty school and became a manicurist at a South Side barbershop. A brother later returned from the European theater of WWII and told her tales of women serving there as pilots.
“Well shoot, that’s what I want to do,” Coleman said, but she couldn’t find a single flight school in the U.S. who would admit a black woman. But, she said, “I wasn’t gonna let that stop me.”
Coleman learned French, saved up enough to attend a flight school in France, and after seven months of instruction on a Newport Type 82 warplane, she became the first woman of African and Native American descent to hold an international pilot’s license in 1921.
She returned home, where her face appeared in newspapers and she earned money through barnstorming shows where her daredevil maneuvers “represented courage and hope for African-American people,” Coleman said.
Coleman was adamant about saving the proceeds from her barnstorming shows to create an aviation school that wouldn’t deny anyone with the desire to fly. After recovering from a crash in Santa Monica, Coleman moved to Orlando, where she took up beautician work again and tragically died in a crash from a likely faulty plane she had just begun to work with.
Coleman later had streets and days in Chicago and Orlando named after her, appeared on a postage stamp, and was inducted into the national and international aviation halls of fame in the 2000s.
“If Aunt Bessie could do all this in the 1920s … you can do whatever you want. Don’t let anybody stop you,” Coleman said.
Coleman also talked about her nonprofit organization, the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars, which exposes disadvantaged youth to career opportunities in aviation through field trips, scholarships, test materials and fees, equipment and flight simulators.
“Some of our [organizations’] students have never been on a plane. Some have never been off the block,” Coleman said.
The event was part of the DLA Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity’s annual Special Emphasis Program and incorporated partners like the City of Battle Creek, the local federal employees union and area Black Employment Program membership.