Monday, April 29, 2013

Florida Times Union Corrects the Record on Aviatrix Bessie Coleman

In 2013, one day before the 87th anniversary of the death of Bessie Coleman here in Jacksonville, (The Florida Times Union) posts an historical article about Bessie Coleman. This publication slighted her in 1926 arguably because she was a black woman.


Congrats to Bessie Coleman on a front page honor in Jacksonville's Florida Times Union newspaper. A paper that slighted her in 1926 when she died (April 30), finally corrected the record - on the 87th anniversary of her death in that city.

The Florida Times Union Features Aviatrix Bessie Coleman on Front Page

The Florida Times Union runs Bessie Coleman story on front page April 30, 2013.

Jacksonville asked to honor first black woman pilot

Opio Sokoni sits under the plaque commemorating the first black woman pilot in the U.S. who died in a plane crash at Paxon Air Field which was located near where Paxon High School is now located.  Bessie Coleman crashed and was killed in a flying accident on April 30, 1926.  Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union
Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union
Opio Sokoni sits under the plaque commemorating the first black woman pilot in the U.S. who died in a plane crash at Paxon Air Field which was located near where Paxon High School is now located. Bessie Coleman crashed and was killed in a flying accident on April 30, 1926.

It was big news in Jacksonville, briefly, 87 years ago.

On April 30, 1926, the lead headline of the afternoon edition of the Jacksonville Journal was played big: “Jax Airplane Crash Kills Two.” The headline in the next morning’s Times-Union was smaller but flashier: “Death at controls of airplane as two are flung from the sky.”

The stories recounted how aviatrix Bessie Coleman — the first black woman to get a pilot’s license — fell 2,000 feet to her death from an out-of-control plane piloted by William Wills, who was killed as the plane exploded on impact.

Thousands of people attended a memorial service in Jacksonville for Coleman, a celebrity pilot known for her daring, her perseverance and her beauty. Then the city moved on. Now there’s scant evidence in the city where she plunged to her death that she was ever there.

Jacksonville native Opio Sokoni is pushing to change that. He thinks there should be something named for her in Jacksonville — afterall, a main road at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is named Bessie Coleman Drive.

“Here, I found out, no streets, no schools, no libraries, no parks. No nothing,” Sokoni said.
He found some support when he asked the City Council last week to do something to memorialize Coleman.

Councilman Warren Jones, whose district takes in the area where she died, said he’ll introduce a resolution honoring her. In an interview after the council meeting, he said he will also look into renaming a street or a park after Coleman, though that isn’t always an easy thing.

“He brought up a good point,” Jones said of Sokoni. “I’m just trying to determine how best to do it.”
Councilman Bill Gulliford said he’d support doing something more than a resolution.

“I think that for a woman, and especially as an African-American woman, in that time, to accomplish what she did was pretty doggone impressive,” he said.

There is one reminder of Coleman in Jacksonville already.

In January 2012, a bronze plaque of “Queen Bess,” as she was known, was placed next to the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies, which in the 1920s was the site of the airfield where Coleman’s fatal flight began. It was unveiled by members of the Bessie Coleman Aerospace Legacy Inc., founded by a group of African-American female pilots.

That group sponsors an essay contest for Paxon students, and students see the plaque every day, said the school’s principal, Royce Turner. “She is kept alive in that way,” he said.

The school has another aeronautical connection: The road in front of it has already been renamed for Paxon grad Norman E. Thagard, a one-time astronaut. “And we’re the Eagles, and that gives us another connection to flying,” Turner said.

Marisa Carbone of Atlantic Beach researched Coleman’s life for a screenplay that was featured at a script contest at the Jacksonville Film Festival in 2004.

“You know, there should be a statue here, there really should,” Carbone said. “She was a pioneer here. She was before Amelia Earhart.”

Coleman, the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, was intrepid: When schools in America wouldn’t teach her to fly, she went to language school to learn French, then traveled to France to get her pilot’s license in 1921.

She was pretty and engaging and brave, which made her a favorite of the Chicago Defender newspaper, a black publication that frequently put her on the front page. Railroad porters put copies of the paper on trains, which then took it around the country, where word of the barnstorming pilot spread, Carbone said.

Coleman put on flying displays around the country, and came to Jacksonville in 1926 to prepare for a big show on May 1. The day before, she and Willis took off to scout out where she would make a parachute jump the next day.

In flight over the Westside, the plane, a Curtiss JN-4, went into a sudden dive and Coleman, who was peering over the side, fell to the ground. Wills died moments later in the crash landing. News reports at the time said a wrench had slid and jammed into the “control gears” of the plane.
“They had a huge service for her at Bethel [Baptist Institutional Church],” Carbone said, “and then they put her body on a train, and all across the country the train stopped and there were services along the way, and when it got to Chicago there was an even bigger service.”

Books have been written about Coleman, and she was honored with a postal service stamp. Mae Jemison, the first black women to fly in space, called Coleman an inspiration. On the anniversary of her death, pilots in Chicago do a flyover past her grave.

A resolution in Jacksonville would be nice, Sokoni said, but it’s not enough.

He’s 43, a Navy vet and graduate of Howard University law school. His family goes back generations in Cosmo, a little community in Fort Caroline. After law school he went west and ran a small radio station in Portland, Ore., and had a few stints on TV facing off against Fox News hosts such as Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham. Back in Jacksonville, he now heads a nonprofit called Poli-tainment Inc., which mixes entertainment and social issues.

That’s where he learned of Coleman’s story, which he made into a short film, “Bessie Coleman: Flying the Blues,” that’s now on YouTube. “Bessie Coleman was one of a kind,” he said. “People need to know about her.”

And the city where she died, he figures, needs to do something more to keep her story alive.
“I don’t want this to be just a black thing,” Sokoni said. “The entire city needs to understand that this woman belongs to all of us.”

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
Opio Sokoni sits under the plaque commemorating the first black woman pilot in the U.S. who died in a plane crash at Paxon Air Field which was located near where Paxon High School is now located.  Bessie Coleman crashed and was killed in a flying accident on April 30, 1926.  Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union
Bessie Coleman Plaque at Paxon High School
Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman


Jacksonville, Florida City Council members Gulliford and Jones were the first to speak up in support of honoring aviatrix pioneer Bessie Coleman in a major way in the city.

Councilman Gulliford
Councilman Jones

Bessie Coleman Fying the Blues




Sunday, April 28, 2013

Opio Sokoni's St. Philips Episcopal Church Speech about Aviatrix Bessie Coleman


April 28, 2013

He knows my soul so weak and blind, 
So full of fears of mortal mind,
And He will lead, and I shall find
The way to Him, I know.
He guides my steps, and He knows best,
He will not harm where He is blessed.
And so goodnight, I'll take my rest,
Where sweet wild roses grow.

Thank You:   Father Hugh Chapman, Rector
                      The St. Philips Church Family
                      And a special thanks to your administrator
                      Mrs. Barbara Lee who gave me a church
                      tour during the week.

             The words I opened with are lyrics to “I’ve Done My Work” - the favorite song of Pioneering Aviatrix Bessie Coleman who died here in Jacksonville in 1926. She had two funerals here in the city. One was at Bethel Baptist Church and the other funeral was here. That song would have been sung here that day.

A movement is now under way to properly honor her memory here in Jacksonville.

I would like to read to you the letter I read before the City Council last week at their meeting.

          I would like to personally thank St. Philips Episcopal Church for being among the first to honor Bessie Coleman. And, for still being here in the same place for so many years.

          Bessie’s story has some parallels to the disciple Philip in the Bible. I’m the grandson of two pastors and I seem to remember that Apostle Philip was with Jesus when he fed the multitudes with the five loaves of bread and fish. That feast is held around May 1. Bessie came her to headline the airshow here on the very month and day in 1926. Bessie’s funeral was held here almost to the exact day.

Bessie died doing what she loved in the field of aeronautics. Her dream was to open up a school so that Blacks did not have to go to France to learn how to fly. When she died, people were so inspired that flight schools were opened in her honor. One such school created the Tuskegee Airmen who were heroes of WWII.  I think about the Apostle Philip being hung upside down and preaching from the cross. Bartholamew was released as a result of St. Philips preaching. He, himself, refused to be taken off the cross and died for his convictions. Your church and you are special. You are here for a reason.

          I want to end by citing the words of another song that the research said was sung at her funerals. The song is entitle, “Jesus Savior Pilot Me.” The last verse of the song goes…

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me,
“Fear not, I will pilot thee.”

Thank you so much for having me. This is such an honor.


This is how St. Philips Episcopal Church would
have looked during Bessie Coleman's Funeral

Order of Leadership at
St. Philips Episcopal Church
Note: Reverend Parchment is
the Rector in 1926, the year
Bessie Coleman's funeral
was held at the church.

Reverend Satterwhite
would have been at
Bessie Coleman's Funeral.
He was the Rector before and
after Reverend Parchment who
was the Rector when the funeral
was held for Bessie Coleman at
St. Philips Episcopal Church.

Current Picture of St. Philips Episcopal Church

Father Hugh Chapman is the current Rector of
St. Philips Episcopal Church

Reverend Hugh Chapman and Opio Sokoni

Opio Sokoni is an activist, researcher of
Pioneering Aviatrix Bessie Coleman
in Jacksonville, Florida
Program - April 28, 2013


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Honor Aviatrix Bessie Coleman Speech by Opio Sokoni at Jacksonville, FL City Council Meeting


Below is the text of the speech given at the Jacksonville, Florida City Council's April 23, 2013 meeting. Opio Sokoni requested that the City commit to officially honoring Bessie Coleman who died in Jacksonville, Florida April 30, 1926. 


              I come before you to respectfully request that we as a city properly honor aviatrix pioneer Bessie Coleman. The city of Jacksonville, Florida is the only town relevant to her storied life that has not formally recognized her memory with a street, building or other major city honor.

            Bessie Coleman earned an international pilot’s license from the most prestigious flight school in France. She was the first African American female to fly a plane. Bessie was immensely popular during the 1920s and was admired by many pilots of the day. She was known for breath-taking air maneuvers and highly entertaining parachute jumps. The Norman Studios here in Jacksonville communicated with Bessie about a film based on her incredible flying.

            On April 27th, 1926 Coleman came to Jacksonville to headline an airshow sponsored by the Negro Welfare League. Her contact here was an impressive, young 21 year old name John Thomas Betsch, a Howard University graduate. He is the father of our very own Johnetta B. Cole. While here in Jacksonville, Bessie made speeches at the Strand Theatre, Stanton High School, Davis Street Elementary and Darnell Cookman.

             On April 30, 1926, while flying over the now defunct Paxon Airfield, Brave Bessie fell 2000 feet from her airplane. She died instantly. Bessie’s body was taken to the Lawton L. Pratt funeral home. Bessie was to appear at the Elite Circle and Girls’ DeLuxe Club’s much anticipated dance that evening, a memorial was held for her instead. A funeral was held for Bessie here at the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church. Thousands of mourners filed past her coffin in Jacksonville. Reverends Scott Bartley, T.H.B. Walker and John E. Ford presided over the massive funeral. The choir sung Bessie’s favorite gospel song; “I’ve Done My Work.” A second service was held for her in the city at the St. Philips Episcopal Church on Union Street - presided over by Reverend Parchment. 

              When Bessie Coleman died, The Florida Times Union newspaper refused to mention her by name; simply calling her “that woman.” A letter has been sent to their editor asking them to run a story to correct the record.

              Bessie would not live to see the Norman Studios make its most famous film, The Flying Ace. The United States Postal Service, however, did recognize Bessie’s pioneering achievements with a postage stamp.  The city of her childhood in Texas and her adopted city (Chicago) have both named major roads and schools in Bessie’s honor. Jacksonville, on the other hand, has streets named after Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers. Bessie has a closer tie to Jacksonville than either of these great aviation pioneers but has not been honored as they have. It is my belief that this woman belongs to this city as much as she belongs to either of the other cities mentioned. This was the place she made her last flight, before she fell into history, doing what she loved while contributing to the new world of aeronautics.

            I say let’s formally commit to doing something major to honor this woman. It will be long overdue for the life and memory of Elizabeth Bessie Coleman.

Opio L. Sokoni, MSCJ, JD at the Jacksonville, FL
city hall on April 23, 2013 - after making a speech
to the City Council concerning formally honoring
female pioneer aviatrix Bessie Coleman.

Opio Sokoni is from Jacksonville, Florida where he did an independent graduate study on pioneering aviatrix Bessie Coleman at the University of North Florida. He is also a political science graduate from Norfolk State University and has a law degree from Howard University.

Frankfurt Germany has a Street Named in Bessie Coleman's Honor

Did you know that Frankfurt Germany has a street named in Bessie Coleman's honor near their Main airport. So does Chicago (Bessie Coleman Drive).  The hotel below is on Bessie Coleman Street. There are no streets or anything named after her in Jacksonville, Florida (the place she made her last flight before falling to her death). It is time that someone spoke up about this omission.


MEININGER Hotel Frankfurt/Main Airport

Bessie - Coleman - Stra├če 1160549 DR Frankfurt/Main


Chicago's Bessie Coleman Drive 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bessie Coleman Honored, but Not in Jacksonville, Florida

Bessie Coleman has been honored in many cities and by the federal government. She has not been properly honored however in the city of her death - Jacksonville, Florida.


Inscribed plaque honoring Bessie Coleman at the Paxon High School in Jacksonville, Florida

Bessie "Queen Bess" Coleman 
The first African American Female Pilot, on April 29, 1926 visited the local schools in Jacksonville, FL to encourage young individuals to explore aviation. While rehearsing for her well-renowned aerobatics show held at Paxon Airfield, which today is Paxon School for Advanced Studies, a few miles away from the airfield her plane crashed. Bessie Coleman's last day was in Jacksonville Florida, on April 30, 1926.

This marker is in Waxahachie, Texas.