TEXAS CAPITOL PAID FOR IN LAND

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

The first big land giveaway in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande. Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to men eager to establish colonies in Texas. The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico. After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction. Finally, the state Constitution of 1876 to set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building. By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold. Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected. Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name. In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties. Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each. A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time. By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year. Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling. Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season. Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch. She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries. Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas. Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches. All the cattle had been sold by 1912, but the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963. One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion Parade where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol

Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas”

Stephen F. Austin fits the image of a reluctant father. He came to Spanish Texas in response to his own father, Moses Austin’s, deathbed wish for Stephen to continue with Moses’ dream of settling 300 families in Texas. Like many apprehensive fathers, Stephen F. Austin austin1embraced his responsibilities and spent the remainder of his life guiding his colony and all of Texas toward its best opportunity for success.

Austin understood and admired the adventurous, hard-working settlers willing to move to a wilderness and carve out a new life because he grew up around the French Canadian, Spanish, and American mine workers in the primitive, lead mining towns his father founded in western Virginia and Spanish Louisiana (present Southeast Missouri). Unlike Moses Austin whose quick temper and need to challenge those with whom he disagreed, Stephen embraced patience, tact, willingness to compromise, and the diplomacy necessary to work with the independent-minded settlers and with the tangles of Spanish and Mexican government bureaucracy.

Stephen reached San Antonio in August 1821, secured authority to continue with Moses Austin’s colonization grant, and arranged for allocating 640 acres for each man, plus 320 acres for a wife, 160 acres for each child, and eighty acres for each slave at a cost of twelve and a half cents per acre to be paid to Austin for administering the surveys and expenses of establishing the colony.

Settlers eagerly grabbed the land offer as Austin scrambled to find financial partners. From the beginning of his colony, Austin insisted all land grants be carefully recorded in bound volumes to preserve a permanent record—a wise decision in light of the news of Mexico finally winning its long battle for independence from Spain.

The first test of Austin’s diplomatic prowess came in December 1821—the first settlers were already arriving—when Mexican authorities refused to approve the terms of Austin’s Spanish land grant.

He left immediately for Mexico City, and after patient negotiation, the Mexican government established a new empresarial policy offering each married man a league of land (4,428 acres) and opened colonization to several more empresarios, agents like Austin who received permission to bring settlers into Texas. The law denied empresarios the right to charge administrative fees, providing instead 67,000 acres for settling each 200 families. However, empresarios received their payment in land only after settling all the families. Imagine trying to sell land to colonists that were getting it free in Mexican grants.

Despite the loss of administrative fees and personal debts mounting as he bore more and more of the unforeseen costs of establishing the Austin Colony, by late 1825, Austin’s colony reached 300 families—known today as the “Old Three Hundred.” Between 1825 and 1829, Austin settled an additional 900 families.

Dealing with the Mexican government required constant compromise. The slavery issue presented a continuing challenge since most settlers came from slave-holding states and the original colonization law allowed them to bring their chattel into Texas. When the new constitution of the state of Coahuila and Texas prohibited slave importation, an uproar spread through the colony. Austin’s personal beliefs (he owned a slave woman he described as old and not worth anything) seemed to shift. As with other issues that he felt represented the best interest of the colonists, he negotiated a scheme allowing settlers to free their slaves at the Texas border and make them indentured servants for an indefinite time.

Recognizing the plight of many colonists who came to Texas without paying their debts in the United States, Austin secured a law closing the courts for twelve years to debt collectors and permanently exempting land, tools, and implements used in business and farming from creditors—an early version of the homestead exemption law.

Austin located his colony in fertile farmlands with access to transportation along the Colorado and Brazos rivers, and then lobbied the Mexican congress to legalize the port of Galveston and to allow trade through ports at the mouth of the Brazos and other rivers.

Despite Austin’s efforts to ease tensions between the differing cultures and remain aloof from Mexican government intrigues by encouraging the colonists to “play the turtle, head and feet within our own shells,” outside forces kept Mexican officials on the defensive. Several offers from President Andrew Jackson for the United States to buy Texas drew Mexican suspicion that the U.S. was plotting to take Texas, which resulted in an 1830 Mexican law halting further colonization by settlers from the United States. Again, Austin wrangled an exemption for his and for Green DeWitt’s colony, and by the following year succeeded in getting the law repealed.

However, when Haden Edwards, in an effort to win Texas independence from Mexico tried to drag Austin’s beloved colonists into the Fredonian Rebellion in late 1826, Austin sent a militia to put down the revolt and save his settlers from the wrath of the Mexican government.

The colonists’ dissatisfaction with Mexican President Anastacio Bustamente’s heavy-handed immigration controls and introduction of tariffs finally led to Austin joining the colonists in supporting Antonio López de Santa Anna in the Mexican presidential elections. Santa Anna soon proved not to be the liberal leader of his campaign, but a dictator who clamped down on the increasingly independent-minded colonists.

Austin did not favor the conventions held in 1832 and 1833 to express Texan grievances, and believed they would not serve the colonists’ best interests, but he attended each event hoping to moderate the actions of the increasingly rebellious settlers. Despite his efforts to temper the resolutions, the delegates, even those who disagreed with Austin, recognized his influence with the Mexican authorities, and elected him to present their petitions of grievance to the government in Mexico City.

Austin’s negotiations resulted in important reforms, but as he headed back to Texas, Santa Anna ordered him arrested and held until July 1835—an absence from Texas of twenty-eight months. During that time Austin recognized that independence would be the only answer for Texas.

Strong factions organized a consultation to begin the process of declaring independence. The consultation delegates selected Austin and two other men as emissaries to the United States to solicit loans and volunteers and to arrange credit for munitions and other equipment, including warships. The men were also charged with getting a commitment of recognition of Texas independence and eventual annexation to the United States.

By the time Austin returned to Texas in June 1836, the celebrated Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 had decisively won the Texas war for independence from Mexico.

Austin “offered his services” as president of the republic in the September election, but it was not to be. Sam Houston, the man who marched across Texas with the army, the flamboyant general who led the troops in the winning Battle of San Jacinto, won the contest. President Houston appointed the quiet and unassuming Austin to the office for which he was well suited—Secretary of State.

Despite failing health and no money to heat his tiny office and living quarters, Austin worked diligently to set up the state department of the new Republic of Texas. As he lay near death with pneumonia on December 27, 1836, he roused from a dream with these last words: “The independence of Texas is recognized. Didn’t you see it in the papers?”

Austin died at age 43 without knowing his beloved Texas, which he nurtured and guided with such patience, would become the twenty-eighth state to enter the Union, and that annexation would trigger the Mexican War (1846-48). Like dominoes falling across the historic landscape, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending that conflict stretched the United States borders to the Pacific Ocean, adding nearly a million square miles and increasing the size of the nation by almost one third.

Father of “The Father of Texas”

History takes little note of Moses Austin (1761-1821). The man known for his grand plans and bold schemes and really big failures initiated Anglo settlement in Texas, which led to Texas independence from Mexico, which led to Texas annexation to the United States, which led to the Mexican War, which resulted in the United States expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He died before seeing the history he set in motion, which makes it necessary to ask: Who was Moses Austin?

Moses Austin

Moses Austin

Durham Hall, Moses Austin Home, Potosi, Washington County, Missouri

Durham Hall, Moses Austin Home, Potosi, Washington County, Missouri

Born in Durham, Connecticut, the fifth generation in a long line of Austins in the United States, Moses Austin at age twenty-one didn’t look much like a mover and shaker as he began a career in the dry-goods business with his brother Stephen. Over the next seven years the Austin brothers prospered, but for unknown reasons, they moved in 1789 in a completely different direction—taking over lead mines in southwestern Virginia.

By agreeing to use only Virginia lead on the roof of the new Virginia capitol in Richmond, the brothers gained control of the state’s richest lead deposit. The new lead roof leaked and had to be replaced with slate. Despite the problems, by 1791 Moses Austin had moved his family, including two-year-old Stephen Fuller Austin, to the mines and named the new community Austinville.

During this period of gigantic land speculation, the Austin brothers’ business thrived and then appears to fail rather suddenly. It is thought that the young men, not known for conservative business practices, over-extended themselves. The scant records indicate Moses Austin was impetuous, lending credence to the story of a rift between the brothers that never completely healed. Moses left his brother Stephen with the failing business and struck out west on his own to the rich lead deposits in Spanish Upper Louisiana (present southeastern Missouri). He found rich lead deposits forty miles west of St. Genevieve. Although the site lay in Osage Indian country, he obtained a Spanish land grant of one league (4,428 acres) under an agreement to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown and settle families in the area. In 1798 Moses led his family and forty whites and a few blacks to a primitive site where he established a settlement named Potosi. In the next few years, despite his personal short-comings—lack of patience, tact, and diplomacy—Moses Austin used a furnace design he learned from the English to gain control of most of the smelting in the region, allowing his family to live very well in Durham Hall their southern-style mansion.

This period in the history of the American lead industry became know as the “Moses Austin Period.” The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the transfer of government to the United States, stimulated emigration to Missouri and increased business for Moses Austin.

Fortunes changed, however, during the War of 1812, paralyzing trade and the lead mining industry in Missouri. Moses Austin tried, unsuccessfully, to use leased slave labor to expand the mining operation. Then, he helped organize the first bank west of the Mississippi in St. Louis, which failed in the Panic of 1819. Stretched beyond his capacity, Austin suffered complete financial ruin.

The following year, his eldest son Stephen F. Austin took charge of the mines and the other businesses in Potosi hoping to “free the family of every embarrassment,” but the collapse proved more than he could salvage.

As Moses searched for ways to recover from his financial loses, he kept mulling over the possibility of another daring scheme—acquiring a land grant from Spanish Texas—an opportunity to make another fortune by settling families on the Texas frontier.

Sometime in November 1820, after visiting with his son Stephen F. Austin in Little Rock, Moses set out for a meeting with Spanish officials in Bexar (present San Antonio). He traveled with a gray horse, a mule, a slave named Richmond, and fifty dollars—a borrowed cache (valued today at $850) for which he agreed to repay his son. He reached Bexar on December 23, where he claimed to be fifty-three years old (he was 59), a Catholic, a former subject of the King of Spain, and a representative of 300 families who wished to join his family in settling in Texas.

The Spanish governor turned him down without looking at his papers. Fortunately, as a dejected Moses crossed the plaza on the way back to his quarters, he met Baron de Bastrop, a man he knew from earlier years in Louisiana. The baron intervened for Austin with the governor and in three days Moses received a grant to settle 300 families in Texas.

Stories differ as to what caused Moses Austin to suffer exposure and exhaustion on his return trip to begin preparations for Texas settlement, but his body grew weak from the journey and despite ill health, he continued feverish preparations for establishing his new colony. In late May 1821 he developed pneumonia and despite his young doctor blistering and bleeding him “most copiously,” he died on June 10. With his dying breath he begged his wife to tell their son Stephen to fulfill the dream of settling Texas for the benefit of the family. Next week, we’ll look at the mirror image of Moses Austin in the life and legacy of Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas.”

Emma Edmondson, Union Spy

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Born in 1841 as Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, the future spy grew up as the youngest of five children on her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada. To please her father, who apparently wanted a son, Emma dressed and worked on the farm like a boy. When she faced an unwanted, arranged marriage in the late 1850s, she ran away from home, and changed her name to Edmonds. She dressed as a man when she reached the United States and began calling herself Frank Thompson as she traveled about the country selling Bibles.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she continued her masquerade as Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry. Military records indicate that Private Thompson served as a nurse and regimental mail carrier. The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia. Emma worked as a nurse at Manassas and helped procure hospital supplies at the Battle of Yorktown.

Although the military record does not say Emma served as a spy, several notations of “absent on duty” coincide with her spy missions. In her first clandestine adventure, she put on a black wig, used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and pretended to be an escaped slave employed on the earthworks at Yorktown where she identified a Confederate spy. At least twice she went behind Confederate lines “disguised” as a woman, including a time when she worked as a black laundress for the Confederates. On another occasion she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea and sold apples and soap to Confederate soldiers. During one of the missions she began having “chills,” the first sign of the malaria that would grow steadily worse.

Emma saw plenty of action when the 2nd Michigan participated in the Battle of Williamsburg. She served as an orderly for a general in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse and in the Battle of Fair Oaks she observed the use of the Intrepid, a balloon that successfully reported Confederate troop movements. In the summer of 1862, while working as a regimental mail carrier, Emma made a round trip of about 100 miles, often sleeping on the side of the road.

Private Franklin Thompson

Private Franklin Thompson

Several campaigns followed, including the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before the 2nd Michigan moved to the Western theater of operations. By mid-April 1863, as the malaria grew worse, her request for a furlough was denied. Fearing discovery of her secret identity if she were hospitalized, she deserted.

She resumed life as a woman and worked as a female nurse for the United States Christian Commission. During this time she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which captured the nation’s imagination, becoming a best seller at 175,000 copies. She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.

Emma married a fellow Canadian, Linus H. Seelye, in 1867, and after moving several times they settled with their five children in LaPorte, Texas.

For several years Emma gathered affidavits from 2nd Michigan veterans in an effort to clear the charge of desertion from the record of Franklin Thompson. Finally, on July 5, 1884, an Act of the 48th Congress granted Emma Edmonds Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, an honorable discharge and allowed a pension of $12 a month.

The General George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic on April 22, 1897, invited Emma into its membership, the only woman known to be a member of a Civil War veteran’s organization.

Continuing bouts of malaria caused her health to deteriorate and on September 5, 1898, Emma Edmondson, Union Spy, died. On Memorial Day 1901, her body was moved to the Washington Cemetery in Houston and given military honors.

Going to the Poorhouse in Texas

Superintendent's house, Kaufman County Poor Farm

Superintendent’s house, Kaufman County Poor Farm

Residences' living quarters, Kaufman County Poor Farm

Residences’ living quarters, Kaufman County Poor Farm

The dream of finding a new life, the belief that if a man worked hard, he could “make it,” drove settlers to Texas by the thousands. If illness, death of the breadwinner, drought or crop failure forced a family into poverty, they and their neighbors believed that the need to accept public assistance was a form of moral failure.

During the Civil War, churches and charities that had always helped the indigent, could not keep up with the level of poverty after the men left for service in the Confederacy. When the men returned, they found four years of neglect, the cattle sold or stolen, fields grown up in weeds, and houses crumbling for lack of money or labor for repair. In an attempt to address the mounting problems of the destitute—young, old, mentally ill, and sick—an addendum was added to Texas’ 1869 Constitution assigning to the counties the responsibility for providing a Manual Labor Poor House to care for the indigent and those who had committed petty crimes. Notice that lawbreakers were to be included in the poor houses—a clear indication of the disdain that coupled the impoverished with the lawless element of the community.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) conducted a survey in 1987 and discovered that at least sixty-five of the 254 counties in Texas opened a poor farm. While very few of the farms kept records of the names, number or type of indigents housed in its facilities, Anderson County listed “indigent blind person, “indigent widow,” and “pauper” among its poor farm residents in 1887. The superintendent was allowed $6.50 per month to provide food and clothing for the paupers and twenty cents per day to feed the convicts and farm hands. The county paid for clothing, medicine and doctor visits for the tenants, but stipulated that funds would not be paid for babies nursing their own mother.

Debbie Cottrell’s research for her article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1989-April 1990 reveals that most of the poor farms closed with the introduction of federal assistance programs during the Great Depression. Cottrell writes that three counties—Anderson, Parker, and Cass—left more records than most other counties. Anderson County, which opened its farm near Palestine in 1884, built a potato barn, a superintendent’s home, housing for indigents and a jail. It operated until the 1940s. Parker County began housing indigent families south of Weatherford in barracks-style houses about 1889; by the 1930s the residents were mostly elderly. Cass County’s farm outside Linden opened in 1895 and replaced the earlier system of paying from $3 to $8 per month to individuals on the pauper list. Jean Howe Stow writes in Frontier Times that in Cass County to be eligible for residency in the poor farm a person could not “own more than $10 in worldly goods. . . had to appear before the commissioner’s court and take a pauper’s oath. . . declaring to the county judge and commissioners, ‘I am a pauper.’” Stow adds that “in addition to furnishing all the necessities of life for the paupers, the commissioners supplied them with the necessities of death . . . payment of $8 for a coffin and a payment of $2 for the digging of a grave.”

El Paso’s second poor farm was located in 1915 near the property of John O’Shea, a wealthy farmer and businessman, who took over operation of the poor farm. His wife Agnes O’Shea, was in charge of the residents, and in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression, John died. Their daughter moved from San Antonio to help her mother, and with the increase of poverty, the population on the farm grew rapidly. Renamed Rio Vista Farm, it housed the temporary base for a Civilian Conservation Corps, and it sheltered hundreds of homeless adults and children. It served from 1951 to 1964 as the reception and processing center for the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican laborers to work in the agricultural regions of the United States. Rio Vista accepted neglected and abandoned children in addition to indigent adults.

Edna Gladney, an early champion of children’s rights and better living conditions, moved with her husband to Sherman, and while on a campaign with the Sherman Civic League to inspect local meat markets and public restrooms, they discovered the deplorable conditions at the Grayson County Poor Farm. After writing a scathing article in the local paper about the poor farm being little more than a dumping ground for the poor, insane, handicapped, and children, she arranged for the Civic League to have a meeting with the Commissioners Court and the owners of the poor farm. She enlisted the aid of ladies of the Civic League to clean and whitewash the facility. Then, she arranged to have the children transferred to the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society in Fort Worth.

Murals of cowboy scenes probably painted in the 1930s are on four walls of a room in the trusty barracks at Kaufman County Poor Farm.

Murals of cowboy scenes probably painted in the 1930s are on four walls of a room in the trusty barracks at Kaufman County Poor Farm.

Kaufman County, whose last residents left the farm in the 1970s, has been preserving some of the structures on the remaining twenty-seven acres of the original farm with the intention of making it a heritage tourism destination and educational resource. The farm, which was opened in 1881, housed the local paupers who were expected to support themselves by working on the farm until they were financially able to leave or until they died. During the 1900 outbreak of smallpox, the poor farm served as the Epidemic Camp. A burial site on the property has been in use since the 1871 typhoid fever epidemic and continues to be the location for burial of transients, inmates who died in jail, and persons who have been quarantined.

The Texas Historical Commission is working with counties throughout the state to locate and document the operation of Texas poor farms—a legacy that has been forgotten.

Bessie Coleman, Aviator

When flight schools in the United States refused to accept African Americans, Elizabeth Coleman sought aviation training in France. She became the first black female to earn a pilot’s license and the first black person in the world to earn an international pilot’s license.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

One of thirteen children born to sharecroppers in 1892, Bessie grew up in Waxahachie south of Dallas vowing to “amount to something.” That dream was a long time in coming. She attended a one-room segregated school where she excelled in reading and math. Her father who was part Cherokee left the family when Bessie was eight and moved to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) where he believed he would find fewer personal barriers. Bessie and the other children helped their mother with the washing and ironing that she took in and they picked cotton to add to the family income.

After graduating high school, Bessie took her savings to Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (present Langston University) but she ran out of money at the end of the first semester. While living with a brother in Chicago during World War I and working as a manicurist, she heard the returning pilots talk about flying during the war. The publisher of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, was so impressed by Bessie’s potential that he and a local banker provided financial backing for Bessie to go to France for pilot training. She took a French language course and left for Paris on November 20, 1920.

According to Doris Rich in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Bessie learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.” She went on to improve her skills with lessons from an ace French pilot before returning to New York in September 1921. She soon realized that to earn a living as a pilot, she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, which required additional training. Still unable to find anyone willing to teach her, she again sailed to Europe for advanced study in France and training in Germany from one of the chief pilots at an aircraft design corporation.

For five years she wowed crowds, both black and white, that called her “Queen Bess” for her daring exhibition flying. She flew a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, a surplus army aircraft leftover from the war. Her first appearance on September 3, 1922, on Long Island was to honor veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Later in Chicago (at present Midway Airport), she performed daredevil figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips.

Continuing with her goal of “amounting to something,” she accepted a roll in Shadow and Sunshine, a film she hoped would offer the income to finance her own flying school. However, when she realized the film opened with her wearing tattered clothing, using a walking stick, and carrying a pack on her back, Doris Duke wrote that Bessie “walked off the movie set as a statement of principle. . . She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”

As she traveled the country performing, she often spoke at schools and churches encouraging young blacks to consider careers in aviation. On one of her trips to Waxahachie, she refused to give an exhibition on the school grounds unless blacks were allowed to use the same entrance as whites. Her request was honored, but once inside, blacks and whites remained segregated.

Bessie Coleman and her plane, c.1922

Bessie Coleman and her plane, c.1922

became known as “Brave Bessie” for her daring stunts and was celebrated as one of the most popular fliers in the country. On April 30, 1926, she was scheduled to perform in a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. Ignoring the concern of family and friends who did not think her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” was safe, she took off on a test flight with her mechanic and her publicity agent piloting the plane. She did not buckle her seatbelt because she intended to make a parachute jump during the performance the following day and she wanted to be able to look over the cockpit sill to check out the landing site below. Just minutes into the flight, the plane failed to pull out of a dive, went into a spin and threw Bessie out of the plane at a height of 2,000 feet. The pilot died on impact and the plane burst into flames. An investigation revealed that a loose wrench, probably used for service, had jammed the plane’s controls.

Her death at age thirty-four came before she fulfilled her dream of establishing flying schools for black students, but she was not forgotten. Bessie Coleman Aero groups organized and on Labor Day in 1931, 15,000 spectators saw the first all-black air show in America sponsored by the Aeros. Black female student pilots in 1977 organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. A street in Chicago in 1990 was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and Chicago declared May 2, 1992, as Bessie Coleman Day. Finally, in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in honor of Bessie Coleman.

Black Heritage Stamp,1995

Black Heritage Stamp,1995