Bessie Coleman was born into a large family in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, the tenth of thirteen children.  By the time of Bessie’s birth, Susan and George Coleman, her parents, had been married for 17 years.  George was of mixed blood—part African American and part Cherokee.  Migrating Georgians had founded the town some 10 years before her birth.  Its residents numbered fewer than 1,000.

Atlanta was a place where fortunes could be made in railroads, oil and lumber.  The main street was studded with shady pin oaks and citizens often gathered at the general store.  However, the town’s shady Main Street and general store were not part of the Colemans’ world.   Her parents were sharecroppers. Her life was filled with dirt roads, tenant farms, and incessant labor.  Soon thereafter, George decided the family would move to Waxahachie, Texas to make a better life for his family, thinking there would be greater opportunities for work in this cotton town.  He purchased a ¼-acre plot in the black section of town and built his family a small, 3-room house.  Bessie was two years old when the family moved into their new dwelling. 

Her early childhood was a happy one, spent playing in the front yard or on the porch.  Sundays were spent at church, morning and afternoon. As the other children began to age and find work in the fields, Bessie assumed some new responsibilities around the Coleman house.  She kept her eyes on her sisters and helped her mother work in her garden.  Bessie began school at the age of six and had to walk 4 miles each day to her all-black school.  She was intelligent and established herself as an outstanding math student.

In 1901, Bessie’s happy life took a dramatic hit.  George Coleman left his family.  He had become fed up with the racial barriers that existed in Waxahachie and all across the state of Texas.  He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was called then, to find better opportunities.  Unable to convince his wife and children to go with him, he left with a heavy heart.  Soon after Bessie's father left, her remaining older brothers also left home, leaving Susan Coleman with four girls under the age of nine.  Within days of George’s departure, Susan found work as a cook/housekeeper for Mr. And Mrs. Elwin Jones.  They were generous employers who allowed Susan to continue to live at home and who would give food and handed-down clothing to the Coleman girls.  While her mother worked at the Jones residence, Bessie took over as surrogate mother and housekeeper at the Coleman home on Mustang Creek.  Every year Bessie’s routine of school, chores, and church was shattered by the cotton harvest.  Each man, woman, boy and girl was needed to pick the cotton, so the Coleman family worked together in the fields during the harvest. At the age of twelve Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church.  Bessie completed all eight grades of her one-room school, yearning for more.  Bessie saved her money and then in 1910 took her savings and enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma.  Bessie completed only one term before she ran out of money and was forced to return to Waxahachie.  She continued her former life working as a laundress in the small Texas town.  In 1915, at the age of twenty-three, she set out to stay with her brother, Walter, in Chicago while she looked for work.  All she wanted was a chance to “amount to something”. 

© Lynne Spivey
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