CLEVELAND, Ohio — Gigi Coleman is soaring where her famous great-aunt, the first American black woman to earn a pilot’s license, never flew before.
Coleman, 57, of Chicago will come to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) at Burke Lakefront Airport on Feb. 10 for a “Dinner with a Slice of History” talk about her renowned relative, Bessie Coleman, who became known as “Queen Bess” during the pioneering days of American aviation.
Gigi Coleman plans to recount many of the stories she heard from her relatives as a youngster who would gather the flowers dropped from airplanes over the cemetery where her great-aunt is buried in Chicago on each anniversary of the famed aviator’s death.
She’ll tell about the other little girl who was born in 1892, in Texas, the tenth of 13 children to sharecroppers, who later moved to Chicago to live with her brothers.
Working as a manicurist at a barber shop, she was inspired by stories she heard from pilots returning from World War I, and took a second job so she could learn how to fly.
American flight schools would not accept women or black students, so she learned how to speak French and went to France, where she trained on flying biplanes and earned her pilot’s license in 1921. She later returned to France to take advanced flight training.
Back in the U.S., Coleman became a media sensation, appearing at air shows, barnstorming across the country, giving talks and dreaming of establishing a flight school for young black aviators.
In 1923, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed in Los Angeles.
It was an omen of her tragic fate.
Three years later, Coleman had just purchased a used, two-seat plane she planned to fly at an air show in Florida. When she and her mechanic took it aloft, the plane unexpectedly went into a dive, throwing Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt or parachute, from the plane. She died instantly upon hitting the ground.
The aircraft crashed, killing the mechanic. It was later discovered that a loose wrench had jammed the plane’s controls.
Coleman, 34, was buried in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery.
Her great-niece, granddaughter of the aviator’s sister, said the flier was remembered by relatives as “a spirited person. She didn’t take no mess off nobody. She was out there doing her thing in the world.”
In the years after the aviator’s death, Coleman said her mother worked to keep the memory and legacy of Queen Bess alive, including public talks and efforts resulting in the creation of a U.S. Postal Service stamp honoring Bessie Coleman in 1995.
After her mother died, Gigi Coleman donned the same kind of vintage aviation gear that other Bessie Coleman historic interpreters were wearing, and set out, as she said, “to keep Aunt Bessie’s dream alive.”
That included founding an after-school program for minority youths interested in aviation careers, called the “Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars.”
Coleman, now retired after working for 25 years as an assistant commissioner in water management for the city, said some 260 students have participated in the program so far.
“Some of these students have never been to an airport,” she said. On field trips, “when they go on a plane, they’re like ‘Wow!’
“That just lets you know how much this (program) is needed, especially in black and minority communities,” she added. “Lets them see what they can do.”
A similar message is directed at her audiences in public talks, such as the upcoming event at the IWASM.
“I want to challenge minds, young and old, and encourage everybody to follow their dreams, and don’t take no for an answer,” Coleman said. “Whatever you want to do in life, you can achieve.
“If Bessie Coleman could go over to France because she couldn’t get a pilot’s license here, if she could do it, the doors are wide open for you,” she added.
And, of course, considering the fate of her great-aunt, Coleman also advises to always buckle up.
(The “Dinner with a Slice of History” event will be held at 6:30 p.m., Feb. 10, at the IWASM, 1501 North Marginal Road, in Cleveland. Reservations, due by Feb. 8, are $15 for members and $17 for non-members. Call 216-623-1111.)