She’s a natural
She stepped off her stage with a smile that went ear to ear. Queenie had never done anything like that before.
“That was exhilarating!” she exclaimed as she walked away from her instrument.
Exhilarating is right. Not only was that the first time she had done anything like that, she, in fact, became the first in the world to do that.
Queenie could hear the crowd in the distance as they cheered her on. After years of hard work, she had achieved a goal of hers. But that - well, that was just the beginning for her.
A long way from home
You see, it wasn’t but a few years ago that she was attending a beauty school in Chicago to become a manicurist. But Queenie always had her eyes set on something a little higher than that.
“I feel like I could do so much more, but it’s hard when very few people take me seriously,” said Queenie as she confided in a friend.
“Have you considered moving? Maybe you’ll have an easier time elsewhere,” responded her friend with a shrug.
That’s exactly what she did. She moved. Far away. Queenie knew it was gonna take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (though hopefully not too much of the former) to make a name for herself, but if she stayed focused and set her mind to it, she could achieve anything. After all, that’s what she learned growing up in North Texas with 12 siblings.
Little did she know, however, just how much her hard work was going to pay off. In fact, she would eventually become one of the most famous people on the planet.
Even though I’m calling her The Original Queen B - don’t make the mistake of comparing her to pop stars of the 2000s. She wasn’t that kind of star. Not by a long shot.
Her preferred stage, for example, was the sky.
And her instrument of choice? A plane.
And boy did she play it very well.
The flight that made Queenie a star
In the days before commercial airlines dominated the sky, barnstorming stunt pilots did. And in 1922, that’s exactly what Queenie trained herself to do.
That performance referenced earlier? That was her making her first public flight doing loop-the-loops, figure 8s, and anything else she could think of that pushed her primitive looking biplane to the limit over the skies of Long Island.
That flight, however, wasn’t just your everyday “first public flight.” It was also the first ever public flight done… by a black woman.
The woman you now know as Queenie also went by the nickname Queen Bess. Today, most people know her as Bessie Coleman.
She was the daughter of sharecroppers from Waxahachie, Texas, who learned to fly in France. That historic flight in 1922 launched Bessie Coleman’s career into the stratosphere.
After that, she toured the country drawing bigger and bigger crowds by performing in shows, teaching lessons, combating racism (for example, she wouldn’t perform or speak at any venue if it was segregated), and encouraging other black people and women of all colors to learn how to fly.
Coleman’s death came in 1926, during a test flight the day before a scheduled performance. She was in the passenger seat (behind the pilot) and shortly after takeoff she unbuckled herself to look out over the edge of the roofless plane and examine the terrain below - as she was planning a parachute jump for the next day. Unfortunately, while she was doing this, the plane malfunctioned, causing it to flip over. As you can imagine - with no roof for protection, Coleman had little time to react and fell out of the plane. A horrific ending for someone who changed the world.
Since her untimely death, she’s been honored all over. From Chicago (where a public library is named after her and some roadways around O’Hare are named in her honor) and Texas (Cedar Hill has a middle school named after her) to Germany (a road near Frankfurt International Airport is named after her) and Nice, France (where a roundabout near their airport is named after her)
“I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…” - Bessie Coleman