The First African Americans to Fly
Black Americans were as disenfranchised as women early in this century. It’s no surprise that they too looked to the sky for freedom. The first black flyer was Eugene Bullard. He joined the French Foreign Legion in WW-I, then transfered to the French flying service.
The second black American to fly was a woman, Bessie Coleman. She was born in 1896, the 13th child in the family. She was raised in Waxahachie, Texas. Her family lived on the edge of poverty, picking cotton in a region of lynchings and a highly active Ku Klux Klan.
Bessie was smart and determined. She learned to read, got books from a local library, and read to her family at night: the Bible, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, books about Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. She finished the eighth grade and a term at a black normal school in Oklahoma. Back in Waxahachie, she did laundry and dreamt of a larger life.
During WW-I, she packed off to Chicago. For four years she worked as a manicurist and read about the new heroes of flight in France. She wanted to fly, but no American flying school would have her. So she learned French in night school, saved her money, and, in 1921, she sailed for France.
She was beautiful, and we find hints that she used her beauty in raising that money. But times were very hard, and Bessie Coleman did what she had to do. In France she got into the Coudron Brothers’ School of Aviation. There she flew Nieuports — the same airplane my father had so loved to fly when he flew in France two years before her. Like him, she wrote about the smells, sounds, and sensations of early flight. She graduated in 1922 and returned to a very different America.
Now she’d been licensed to fly by the best. She joined the community of black intellectuals in the Harlem of the ’20s. And she hatched a plan to set up her own flying school. The next year she was back in Europe drumming up support for the idea. Anthony Fokker entertained her in Holland. He showed her his airplane factories and vowed his support. Former German pilots entertained her in Berlin.
She barnstormed America to raise money for the project. She became a darling of the white press. Back in Texas in 1925, she did air shows in Houston and Dallas. Then she went back to Waxahachie for a show. The gates and bleachers were to be segregated. She drew a line: No show unless black and white entered by the same gate. The management agreed. — Of course, the bleachers stayed segregated.
1926 found Bessie Coleman scouting a parachute jump site in Jacksonville. The controls of her Curtiss Jenny locked. The plane spun and she fell to her death. She was only 30, and all that remained, hanging in the clear air above her, was a huge legacy of loving life.
While the Afro-American, Bessie Coleman, was flying in America, the Anglo-African woman, Beryl Markham, had taken up flying on the other side of the world — in Africa. Beryl Markham wrote about her fears as she set out to make the first flight from England to the North American mainland in 1936:
We fly but we have not ‘conquered’ the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us [to use her forces]. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles …
Her flight came late in the string of early transatlantic crossings that tested and probed Nature — each as dangerous as the last, each still dependent on specially-built airplanes. Markham’s east-to-west crossing was the last ad hoc challenge to Nature that had to be made before commercial transatlantic traffic could begin three years later.
Nature rapped Markham’s knuckles right smartly. She ran out of fuel over open sea before she got to Cape Breton. Her Percival Vega Gull aeroplane sputtered its last just as land came into view. She upended in a peat bog a few miles short of her intended landfall and stumbled out with a badly cut head.
But Markham’s more remarkable feat wasn’t in the air; it was in literature. Her one book, West With the Night, is a tour de force arriving out of some unexpected aether. And we wonder how!
Beryl’s maiden name had been Clutterbuck. She was born in England in 1902, and her father took her to Africa when she was four. She got the name Markham from her second husband. She grew up on a Keyna farm, learned to hunt with African boys, and was once mauled by a lion. Her schooling was minimal. She took up horse training in her late teens and flying in her late 20s.
By then the beautiful Markham had married twice, mothered a son (whose father may’ve been the Duke of Gloucester), and was woven into the decadent, upper-class, expatriate English life of pre-war Africa.
She was a friend of Isak Dinesen (played by Meryl Streep in the movie, Out of Africa). But the friendship suffered when Markham took up with Dinesen’s real-life Robert Redford character. Until she went to England for her transatlantic flight, she flew airmail in Africa, she rescued wounded miners and hunters in the bush, and she spotted bull elephants for rich hunters. She was a serious adventure-junkie.
After the Atlantic flight she wrote her book about life in Africa and life in the air. The book is astonishing — extraordinary writing by any measure. Hemingway said it made him ashamed of everything he’d ever written.
No doubt she had some help from her third husband, writer Raoul Schumacher. But how heavily was he involved? Rough drafts show editorial markings in both their hands. The problem is, Schumacher never wrote anything else to approach it, while Markham never wrote anything else at all.
So where did this masterpiece come from? I suspect Markham was a creative coiled spring, wound tight by life on the edge — a spring that uncoiled only once, leaving us all the richer for that one great whirl of expression.