Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

Reconstructing History: Anna Coleman Ladd, the Mask Artist of World War I

National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)
National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)

Just before World War I, an artist and sculptor named Anna Coleman Ladd decided to focus her skills on another method of creative expression: She wrote a novel. The Candid Adventurer, published in 1913, tells the story of a portrait painter named Jerome Leigh who is obsessed with external beauty and unable to see beyond the superficial. The other main character in the book, Mary Osborne, struggles with a sense that she’s out of touch with the problems of the less fortunate. Her privileged social status keeps her “from the touch of life, from humanity in its grossness, its evil, its suffering,” even as her daughter, Muriel, tries to draw her out of her emotional isolation.

The Candid Adventurer offered a degree of foreshadowing for Ladd's own life. In just a few years, she would voluntarily remove herself from a comfortable existence as a celebrated artist in Boston and relocate to Paris, where a queue of soldiers severely injured in battle waited for her help in alleviating their suffering. Using all of the skills she’d acquired as an artist, Ladd crafted custom masks that restored their damaged eyes, missing noses, and shattered jaws. She invited them into her studio, made them feel at home, and allowed them to walk out with a facsimile of what the war had taken from them. What plastic surgery would one day do with a scalpel, Ladd did with little more than copper, plaster, and paint. She did so not only to please the Jerome Leighs of the world, who recoiled at damaged faces, but for the soldiers themselves, who feared they might never again be accepted into society.

 

Ladd was born Anna Coleman Watts in Pennsylvania in 1878. Thanks to her two wealthy parents, John and Mary Watts, she enjoyed an education rich in literature and the arts, both in America and abroad. She learned sculpting at the side of masters in Rome in 1900. When she returned to the States, women of prominence commissioned private works from her.

Watts’s social position, already gilded, was elevated further when she married physician Maynard Ladd in 1905. Since Maynard was from Boston, the now-Anna Coleman Ladd relocated to his hometown and attended the Boston Museum School for three years. There, she became a local celebrity for her paintings and busts.

Ladd stayed busy with her artwork and novel writing. In 1917, an art critic named C. Lewis Hind drew her attention to an article written by a man named Francis Derwent Wood. An artist by trade, Wood had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in his early forties. After seeing the brutally disfigured men who had been brought back from the trenches to be treated by his colleague, the London-based surgeon Harold Gillies, Wood opened the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in the Third London General Hospital, which soon became known informally as the "Tin Noses Shop." Wood’s intent was to pick up where the surgeon left off, creating cosmetic improvements using fabricated facial appliances that filled in the empty space destroyed by war.

Ladd was convinced her skill set could achieve similar—perhaps even better—results. Through her physician husband's connections, she was able to get an audience with the American Red Cross, which agreed to help her open a studio on the Left Bank of Paris. She arrived in France in December of 1917 and had her space ready for patients by the spring of 1918. She named it the Studio for Portrait Masks.

A soldier before and after being fitted for a facial mask by Anna Coleman Ladd
A soldier is seen with part of his chin missing (L) and after being fitted with an appliance by Anna Coleman Ladd (R).
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To understand why Ladd and Wood’s expertise was needed, it helps to contextualize the state of both warfare and medicine in the early 20th century. Combatants in World War I were firing and receiving heavy artillery from automatic weapons; grenades sent shrapnel flying in all directions. Because so many men were embedded in trenches, sticking their heads out often meant receiving direct or ancillary fire. Helmets may have guarded against lethal injuries to the brain, but helmets could also be shattered, sending pieces flying into their face. Of the 6 million men from Britain and Ireland who fought in World War I, an estimated 60,500 suffered injuries to the head or to their eyes.

With parts of their faces now missing or severely damaged, these men would be carted off the field and directed toward medical stations and major hospitals. Their potentially lethal wounds would be treated, but surgical restoration of cosmetic damage was still in a relatively primitive state. Sometimes, a patient who would require several surgeries to achieve an improved appearance could only be afforded one due to a lack of time or a shortage of staff. Gillies was a smart and insightful surgeon who pioneered some of the techniques seen in modern plastic surgery, treating thousands of men at Queen's Hospital, but it was impossible to perform revolutionary procedures for every wounded patient coming through the doors.

After being treated and released, the men often found great difficulty returning to their normal lives. They were self-conscious about their appearance and sometimes spoke of what they called the Medusa effect: Walking down the street, a passerby would catch sight of their collapsed cheekbones or hollow eye socket and faint. In Sidcup, England, where Gillies practiced, blue park benches near the hospital were reserved for men with disfigured faces; the color also served as a signal that the occupant of the bench might have an alarming appearance. The French referred to these men as mutilés, for mutilated, or Gueules cassées, for broken faces. Some were so despondent over their appearance they committed suicide.

It was these men Ladd sympathized with and was desperate to assist.

 

Ladd corresponded with Wood to gather information on how such facial injuries could be addressed through facial appliances. Though masks had been worn for centuries by people with deformities, no one had ever tried making them on such a scale before. It's been estimated that 3000 French soldiers were in need of such attention. To visit Ladd, they required a letter of recommendation from the Red Cross.

Ladd eventually settled on a process that involved making a plaster cast of the patient. First, she would invite them into the studio, which she insisted be a warm and welcoming environment. Ladd and her four assistants made the soldiers feel as comfortable as possible; she trained her staff to make jokes and not fixate on the visitors' appearances. Next, Ladd applied plaster over their faces and allowed it to dry, creating a hardened cast from which she could make a copy of the face and craft an appliance in gutta-percha, a rubber-like substance, which was then electroplated in copper. Depending on the work required, Ladd would also sometimes use a silver mesh plate covered in plaster. The missing or disfigured features were designed using reference photographs of her subject from before the war. The copper was just 1/32 of an inch thick and weighed between four and nine ounces. The mask might encompass anything from a missing nose to an entirely destroyed portion of the face, depending on the extent of damage.

Next came the step requiring Ladd’s skills as a painter. She used an oil-based enamel resistant to water and attempted to match her recipient’s skin tone somewhere between how it would look under clouds or dim light and how it might look on a sunny day. (Leaning toward either extreme would only lessen the illusion.) If a mustache was required, she crafted one out of foil. Human hairs were used for eyebrows and eyelashes. The mask was typically attached to a pair of spectacles hooked over the ears to hold it in place, or a strip hooked behind the ear.

The Red Cross produced a film (above) illustrating the process. In 1918, Ladd explained her intentions to a very curious press: “Our work begins when the surgeon has finished,” she said. “We do not profess to heal. After the wounded man has been discharged from the hospital we begin our treatment. Of course, the chief difficulty in making these masks is to accurately match both sides of the face and restore the features so that there will be nothing of the grotesque in the appearance of the covering. A mask that did not look like the individual as he was known to his relatives would be almost as bad as the disfigurement.”

The process took roughly a month before Ladd was satisfied with the result. Though her patients were primarily French soldiers, she made a handful for Americans, who—per the wishes of the American Red Cross—got expedited treatment.

 

All told, Ladd spent 11 months in Paris. Some estimates put her studio’s production at over 200 masks, but the figure was likely closer to 97. Considering how much time each one took Ladd and her four-person staff, it was a staggering amount of productivity, with roughly nine masks churned out every month. When the war concluded, she returned to Boston to pick up her commercial sculpting career. She was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her war service in 1932. She died in 1939 in California at the age of 60, just three years after retiring.

In the years following the war, Ladd gave lectures and spoke freely about her experiences fabricating these faces. She received letters from men thanking her for making them more comfortable with their appearance. No extensive study of these soldiers was ever pursued, however, and it’s difficult to say how the masks were incorporated into their day-to-day lives.

The items themselves were also not impervious to wear and wouldn't last more than a few years. Even if they did, the patient would eventually undergo a puzzling metamorphosis: They would age, but the mask would not. Eventually, the contrast between a flawless copper plate and wrinkled or pale skin would become too noticeable.

Some of Ladd’s subjects may have spent years in relative comfort. Others may have only had fleeting moments of normalcy, where favorable light and the company of close friends made them less self-conscious about what the war had taken from them. But in some measure, Anna Coleman Ladd had used her artistic ability to give them a respite from the misfortune that accompanied their bravery. Of those who were photographed wearing her masks, many were smiling.

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