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
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.
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”.