Thursday, April 18, 2013

Letter to the Florida Times Union: Correct the Record on Pioneer Aviatrix Bessie Coleman

Dear Florida Times Union Editor

            This letter is a request that the Florida Times Union newspaper do a correction on an important historical figure. On April 30, 1926, female aviatrix pioneer Bessie Coleman died at the (now defunct) Paxon Airfield here in Jacksonville, Florida. When Bessie Coleman died, your publication refused to mention her by name; simply calling her “that woman.However, it did mention the name of the man who piloted the plane. Your story also falsely reported that he was teaching Bessie how to fly. The truth is, Mrs. Coleman held an international pilot’s license she earned from the most prestigious flight school in France. The young pilot was Bessie’s junior and had less flying skills.

            Bessie Coleman was immensely popular during the roaring 20s and was admired by the male and female pilots of her day. One of her admirers was Amelia Earhart. Bessie was known for breath-taking air maneuvers and highly entertaining parachute jumps.  Bessie is also the first African American female to fly an airplane. This woman’s story is important to all. The Unite States Postal Service recognized Mrs. Coleman’s achievements with a stamp in her honor.  The Norman Studios (of Laurel and Hardy fame) here in Jacksonville communicated with Bessie concerning an idea about a film based on her flying skills. She would not live to see the company make its most famous film, The Flying Ace. This film was completed and screened at the end of the same year Bessie Coleman died.

            Bessie was invited to Jacksonville by the Negro Welfare League. Thousands of people in Jacksonville were going to enjoy their May 1st sponsored airshow. However, a day before the event, Bessie was leaning over her airplane checking out the field below while her assistant piloted the plan. The plane jerked downward throwing Bessie from the plane. She fell 2,000 feet to her death. Her body was taken to the Lawton L. Pratt funeral home. There were thousands of mourners at two funerals held for her here in Jacksonville. One service was held for Bessie at the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville. Minister Reverend Scott Bartley, Reverend T.H.B. Walker and Reverend John E. Ford presided over the massive funeral. A second service was held for her in the city at the St. Philips Episcopal Church on Union Street then lead by Reverend Parchment. Other funerals were held for her in Orlando and in Chicago where over 15,000 mourners filed pass her casket.

            Jacksonville is the only city relevant to this story that has not officially recognized Bessie Coleman with an honor. This town needs to know that Chicago named a major road leading to one of their major airports, Bessie Coleman Boulevard. There are streets and schools named in her honor around this country. Jacksonville has streets named after Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers. Bessie has a closer tie to Jacksonville than either of those great aviation pioneers but has not been memorialized as they have. Such an important figure is worthy of your attention and most importantly, making the record straight. An ideal piece would be a series about Bessie Coleman explaining her heroics and the time in which she lived. The city will get to know a pioneering woman who belongs to this city because of her death here. This would be an award-winning story for a talented journalist.

                Enclosed with this correspondence is a copy of both a summary (attached) of her life, ebook and a documentary film entitled “Bessie Coleman: Flying the Blues.” I did this project several years ago while a graduate student at U.N.F. The film has run on the city’s public access channel. I will also be asking the City Council and Mayor Brown to consider honoring Bessie Coleman in some official way. Thanks again and I can be reached by email at or by text/call at 904-422-6078.


Opio Sokoni

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