Sunday, February 17, 2013

Amelia Earwho?

When people talk about women in aviation there is only one name that is spoken of, Amelia Earhart. Sure, she did everything "first," but does that make her the best? Most of the allure of Earhart is the mystery surrounding her fate. But there is another pilot in American History whose untimely death was surrounded by mystery as well. She is quite unknown to most, even to some aviation buffs. She was Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman. She was the first African American female pilot and the first African American to have an international pilot license. What makes Coleman interesting is what she did with an airplane. Unlike Earhart, who flew record setting flights, Coleman was the female Evil Knievel of early 20th century flight. So, it's time that Coleman get the respect she's do and is mentioned in the same conversation as Amelia Earhart.

Bessie Colman was born January 26, 1892 in the small town of Atlanta, Texas. One of thirteen children, I guess there wasn't much for else for the Colman parents to do in Atlanta, her parenst were George and Susan. Colman spent the majority of her life in Waxahachie, TX. Coleman walked 4 miles, both ways, to her segregated schoolhouse. There she learned to read and write, she loved reading the classics and was an excellent math student. However, education was not the main focus in her life. Every year when the cotton harvest took place, she would join her family in harvesting, as it was major bump in their family income. However, at the age of 9 Coleman's life was turn upside down. Her father who was part Cherokee, became disgusted with the racial segregation that took place in Texas and left for the Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma. At 18, Bessie attended Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University but could only afford one year of schooling before returning back to Waxahachie. It would be in 1915 that she'd move to Chicago and her life would change in a direction the young girl from Texas could never imagine.

While in Chicago, Bessie worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she overheard stories from returning WWI vets, and mainly from return pilots. She became captivated and fell in love with the idea of flying. However, two thing stood in her way of achieving her dream. First, she was a woman and back then women couldn't "do'' anything. Second, she was black. To add insult to injury not even African American pilots would train her. Not being one that was easily discouraged, she took the advice of the publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott, and went to France to be trained. She arrived in Paris in November of 1920. Once in Paris, she learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82She became a liscened pilot in June of '21. However, the license wasn't enough. She took lessons from French Air Force aces to improve her skills. She returned to the states in 1921 and was an automatic sensation.

In the cockpit, Coleman was fearless. A true She worked as a stunt flier and preformed in front of large but more importantly, paying crowds. She flew a few shows in the states, but returned to Europe in '22 to sharpen her skills and take her abilities to the next level. She trained and learned from some of the top pilots in France, the Netherlands and Germany. When she returned again to the states, this time she returned not as just the top female pilot but as one of the top pilots on the world. Better known to the public as Queen Bess, she was a part of every major flying event in the country. The media couldn't get enough of her and featured her at every chance they had. She was a fan favorite of both men and women, old and young but more importantly blacks and whites. She flew anything she could get her hands only, but she primarily flew the Curtiss JN-4 biplane, better known as the "Jenny."  Her first major American show was in September of '22, held at Curtiss Field on Long Island. The event honored the 369th Infantray Regiment, which was an all African American regiment. Coleman was the main event and dubbed "the world's greatest woman flier."

After the success of the show on Long Island, Coleman preformed in another major American airshow at the Checkerboard Airdome, or better known today as Chicago's Midway Airport. At the show Coleman really stepped up her game. There she cemented herself as not just the greatest female daredevil but maybe one of the greatest daredevils to ever sit in a cockpit. She preformed figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips all to the delight of the crowd on the ground. Her reputation was growing as the best female pilot to ever take to the sky. She was absolutely fearless and not afraid of attempting new and innovative tricks. In February of '23 she crashed her plane at the Los Angeles Airshow and broke her leg and three ribs. However, because of this the press turned on Coleman and called her overly flamboyant  and opportunistic... Umm did they realize she was a daredevil? Of course she is going to be overly flamboyant it comes with the job. It was at this point, after she had conquered the sky, it was time for her to share the joy of flying. Coleman wished to open her own flying school in the states and teach the next generation of adrenaline junkies, but there was a different plan for Queen Bess.

In April of 1926 Coleman purchased another Curtiss JN-4 and began to break it in for a show in Jacksonville. However, her family and friends did not feel comfortable with her flying it and seriously encouraged her not to fly it. It was Coleman and her mechanic William Wills in the plane that day and everything was going fine. It was after about 10 minutes into the flight that something wasn't right. The plane didn't pull out of a dive but instead begin to spin out of control. Coleman was thrown from the plane at about 2000 feet and died on impact. She was thrown because during the flight she was surveying in the land as her next big trick was to parachute from her plane. Wills also died as the plane plummeted to the ground and burst into flames. The cause of the crash, a wrench was left in the gearbox and jammed into it, ultimately causing Coleman's untimely death.
Elizabeth Coleman is one of the most overlooked women in, not only aviation history, but American History. She did things with an airplane that men then and not even now would be willing to do. But what is more impressive than being able to master flying a plane the way she did was her drive. Coleman never stopped pushing herself and never settled for anything. She always set the bar higher for herself every time she surpassed her set goals. She never gave up her childhood dream of amounting to something. Coleman is an under credit person in American History and it is a shame. She died at 34 years of age and it is unknown what doors she would have opened for not just women, but for African Americans as well. I think it might be fair to say that when we look at the timeline of women in aviation history that Coleman really paved the way for the most famous female pilot of all time Amelia Earhart. The truth is Coleman may be the greatest female pilot of all time, setting the standards not just for herself but for everyone that sat in a cockpit during that time. She is an American hero that has been forgotten for to long.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Doesn't Anyone Talk About This Guy!?!

It's Black History Month and again one man is not mentioned. We always hear about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and many other influence African Americans and rightfully so. But every year there is one name that is never mentioned and I have no idea why. He was at the start of the American Revolution and in fact was the first man killed in the Revolution. The name Crispus Attucks may not be familiar to most outside the city of Boston, but he is a familiar character in the story of America and should be honored during Black History Month as all the other great African Americans in our history are.

On the evening of March 5, 1770 Crispus Attucks would become cemented in History as the first man killed in the American Revolution. But before we get to that, who was Crispus Attucks? Not much is known about Crispus but what is known is pretty interesting. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts on oddly enough, March 5, 1723. His father, a slave, was Prince Yonger. His mother was Nancy Attucks, a Natick Indian and descendant of John Attuck who was hung during King Philip's War back in 1670s, but that is another story for another blog. Attucks had a desire for freedom, so at the age of 27 he ran away from his owner, William Brown in 1750. Looking to make an escape Attucks turned to the sea and worked on several different ships. Mainly working on whaling ships, Attucks spent the remainder of his life sailing from port to port and ship to ship until March of 1770, when he found himself in Boston, awaiting the next ship to leave. 

Now we all know the story of the Boston Massacre. The British presence in the city was growing more and more unwanted. The Stamp Act and Townshend Acts were really pissing off the Bostonians and that radical group called the Sons of Liberty were stirring the pot and whipping the city into a frenzy. With  the Sons of Liberty doing their thing and the British being, well just being British it was only a matter of time before the city would see everything boil over. That boiling point came on that cold March night in 1770. The lobster backs were the main target that night, specifically members of the 29th Regiment of Foot. It all started with some innocent snowball throwing and name calling. But then there was that one guy, who is always at these kind of things and forces things to escalate, and who started throwing chunks of ice at the Redcoats. Now, the Redcoats were agitated and the growing crowd jeered and the situation continued to get worse. By this time a group of men, including Attucks, armed with clubs and other weapons made their way to the Old State House. Now this is where things get spotty. Some say Attucks himself struck a solider, while others say he was just in the crowd. It was at this point that the freedom and liberty hating British troops opened fire on the crowd and hit five Americans. The first to be hit was Crispus, shot twice in the chest and died within minutes. That night, March 5, 1770 saw the first to fall in America's fight for Independence. A no name, runaway slave, shot twice and left to die on a street in Boston, would be the first casualty of the American Revolution. But why is Crispus not celebrated today? Not just during Black History Month, but during any talk of American History.

When talking about African Americans in American History, especially those who lived prior to the 20th century and even those who lived in the 20th century, it is impossible not to talk about good old fashion American racism. Even in the immediate wake of the Boston Massacre, a racist attitude could be seen. When John Adams was defending the British soldiers he referred to the group, including Atttucks, as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs," I don't know about you but personally I think John Adams is kind of a jerk, so I don't put much value into anything he says but this line shows how even then Attucks was viewed, just a nameless person only to be described as racial term. Even depictions of the event are bias towards Attucks, as some show him, while others conveniently leave him out. From 1770 until the 1850 Attucks was an urban legend of sorts. Nothing celebrating him, nothing honoring his sacrifice, he's got nada, niente, nicht, zero. That is until 1858. It was then that "Crispus Attucks Day" was established by Boston abolitionists. Throughout History, Crispus has made momentary emergences. In 1888, a monument was dedicated to the victims of the Boston Massacre, in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. referenced him in a speech, in 1976 Stevie Wonder mentioned him in his song "Black Man," in 1998 the U.S. Treasury released the "The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Civil Dollar" which had Attucks on the reverse side, in 2002 he was added to the 100 Greatest African Americans and he has several places that bear his name today, from schools to roads & parks to associations. I think James Neyland best sums up Crispus Attucks best and the reason why we need to remember him as "the first defy, the first to die;"

He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America.

-James Neyland

Sunday, February 3, 2013

And the Most Awesomest Nickname Ever Goes To....

Nicknames, they have been around forever and everyone has one. For my entire life I've been referred to a Mick, my brother Sean as Lumpy and my fiancée used to called Hueso (literal Spanish translation is bone) by her parents when he was younger. The point is most nicknames will stick with a person for life, whether they like them or not. All of our American President from Washington to Obama have a nickname, as do most other famous Americans that make up our history. But one man stands alone as the holder of the greatest nickname ever. He may be unknown to most of you but the man was a true blue hero through and through. His name Eugene Bullard.

Now I know what your thinking, what nickname could a guy name Eugene have? Well let me tell you,it is awesome. Born Eugene Jacques Bullard on November 9, 1895 in Columbus, Ohio, he was one of the ten children between William O. Bullard (whose nickname was Big Chief Ox) and Josephine Thomas. Growing up in Columbus was not an ideal place for a child of African and Native American mix to grow up. His father at one time was even a victim of an attempted lynching. So it didn't take him that long to decide to leave. He stowed away on a ship heading for Scotland where he sought to start a new life, free from racial segregation. Once in Scotland he made his way to Glasgow and started a career as a boxer and during that day worked as a stage hand. His life in Scotland wasn't so bad, he was working, not at risk of being lynched, getting a pay check, life was good. But for Bullard and everyone else living during the late 1910s, everything was about to change.

Bullard was visiting Paris when the Great War broke out. At the time I am willing to bet he was the toughest guy in all of France, so being the toughest guy in the country Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. he was fearless in battle, almost unstoppable as he charged across No Man's Land. In 1916, at the Battle of Verdun he was wounded and instead of being like the rest of his French comrades, Bullard picked up he rifle and kept firing at the enemy. For his bravery he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. After sticking it to the Germans on the ground Bullard was transferred to the Lafayette Flying Corps this way he could reign terror down from above. In August of 1917 he was assigned to the 93rd Spad Squadron, and becomes the first African American fighter pilot ever to take to the sky. Once in the sky he was a nightmare for the Germans. Everytime they thought they had him he'd somehow escape. He seemed to hit everything that moved too. He flew 20 different combat missions and is credited with taking down 2 German planes. It was because of his bravery in on ground, his skill in the cockpit and his imposing persona that he was nicknamed the Black Swallow of Death. I know it is the most awesomest nickname ever. A guy named Eugene is the Black Swallow of Death.

By the fall of 1917 the U.S. had entered the war. The U.S. Army Air Service was plucking the best pilots from the British & French ranks. Bullard was the best and he passed the medical exam which should have cleared him to fly and continue blasting Red Baron wanna bes out of the sky. Unfortunately, that smug known as racism that is dotted across American History reared its ugly head. Bullard was "overlooked" or in other words, not allowed because he wasn't a Caucasian. But that didn't deter Bullard, he the Black Swallow of Death, you think racism scared him? He kept fight for the French and racked up more street cred as being the toughest guy flying over the trenches. However, in January of 1918, Bullard was involved in an altercation with a French officer. Naturally, Bullard beat the croissants out of him but because of the fight he was transferred back to the infantry, never to fly again. He stayed in the war until Armistice Day and was always held in the highest of regards amongst his fellow soldiers.

After the war the Black Swallow stayed in Paris and did what any average retired fighter pilot would do, he opened a night club. While living in Paris and rubbing elbows with the likes of Louie Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes and fellow pilot Charles Nungesser, Bullard found love. He married the daughter of a French Countess and they had two beautiful daughters. The club, Le Grand Duc, was one of the hottest spots in Paris. At the out break of WWII, Bullard spied on Germans who visited his club. However, once the Germans invaded France, Bullard picked up his family and made a run for Spain. But don't think he didn't stick it to the Germans one more time. He joined a group of French soldiers that were defending Orléans. Unfortunately, Bullard was hit and suffered a spinal injury. He returned home to the states in July of 1940 and recovered from his injuries in New York.

Bullard never found the fame he had in Paris in New York. The Black Swallow of Death was unknown outside of France which is a shame, since he was a true American hero. Bullard worked odd jobs to support his family, from a perfume sales rep to an interpreter for his old friend Louie Armstrong. Once the dust settled from World War II, Bullard wanted to go back to his nightclub in Paris. The club had been leveled during the war, probably because the Germans were terrified of his return. He did receive a settlement from the French government, as because they to were afraid of him, and he used that money t buy a home in Harlem. Bullard's life from here on out was that of most African Americans, a time of uncertainty. For example, Bullard was attacked during the Peekskill Riots, a riot started ironically by the Veterans of Foreign Wars & the American Legion. The reason, Paul Robeson was performing to benefit the Civil Rights Congress, but Robeson was considered a pinko commie, so obviously the right thing for them to do was to attack innocent concert goers. By the 1950s, the Black Swallow was not even a memory, practically an unknown hero in his own country, even in his own neighborhood.

In 1954, Bullard was invited back to France to light the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Because of this The Black Swallow's exploits during the war were made aware to those in the states. He was paraded around France and under the Arc de Triomphe. Later in 1959, he was made a Chevalier, in the Legion d'honneur. Bullard would die of stomach cancer in October of 1961. He received a full military funeral and is buried in the French War Veterans' section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens. Bullard was one of the greatest heroes of WWI. He never shied away from a fight, never afraid during a battle or while flying through the sky. A man who was practically indestructible, bullets, grenades, bombs, nothing seemed to be able to stop him. His actions during battle were the stuff of legend. he was a successful business man. But more importantly a good husband and father. Bullard is the kind of guy we should still look up to today. The Black Swallow of Death, he once terrorized the skies, would party all night long, and love his family. The word hero is often used incorrectly when referring to some people, but when calling Eugene Bullard a hero is a understateme.