Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators
This lesson is a modified version of one that appears in African American Pioneers in Aviation, a teachers guide produced by the education department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (http://www.nasm.si.edu/education/teaching_resources.cfm#aviation ).
These standards are achieved through guided work with the teacher.
U.S. History: K-4 (from the National Center for History in the Schools)
- Standard/Topic 3 The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the Peoples from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage
Language Arts: K-12 (from the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association)
- Standard 1 Reading for Perspective
Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, of the cultures of the United States, and the world.
- Standard 2 Understanding the Human Experience
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- Standard 3 Evaluation Strategies
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
- Standard 4 Communication Skills
Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
Visual Art: K-12 (from the National Art Education Association)
- Standard 1 Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
- Standard 3 Choosing and evaluation a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas
- Standard 6 Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines
Students will explore information based on primary and secondary source materials, including first-person accounts, newspaper articles, and archival photographs, in order to:
- Learn about the challenges faced by African Americans as they created their own opportunities in the field of aviation.
- Gain essential details about the life of an important woman in the field of aviation through a guided reading activity.
- Draw or paint a portrait demonstrating their understanding of the lesson material.
Duration Two or three 45- to 60-minute class periods
- African American Pioneer Aviators (click here )
- Biography of Bessie Coleman (click here )
Make copies of the following materials for students:
- Biography of Bessie Coleman (click here )
Have large drawing paper and markers, crayons, or paint ready for Part II.
- Photographic portrait of Bessie Coleman (click here )
To introduce the featured personality in this lesson begin by reading one of the following books aloud to the class: Bessie Coleman by Eric Braun (Coughlan Publishing, 2005) or Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of Brave Bessie Coleman by Reeve Lindbergh, Pamela Paparone (illustrator), (Candlewick Press, 1998).
1. Distribute copies of the photographic portrait of Bessie Colman. Give the students a few minutes to think about who or what this person might be and when the photo might have been made. Ask the students to cite evidence in the photograph that supports their ideas.
2. Pair the students and have them share their ideas with their partners. Allow time for the students to discuss their observations, and then lead a class discussion by asking the students to share what they discussed with their partners.
3. Distribute copies of Bessie Coleman's biography and photograph. Read the biography aloud as the students follow along.
4. There are several words or phrases in this passage, not specifically related to aviation, that students might find difficult. Re-read the passage doing a "think-aloud," using context cues to help students determine the meaning of these words (listed below). This activity will provide a richer understanding of the passage.
First paragraph: muster, avid, toyed, quest
Second paragraph: holder, issued, prospective, accrue
Third paragraph: barnstormed, rigorous, "her people," threshold
5. As a class, reflect on the biography (passage by Coleman's sister) and lead a discussion about the challenges Coleman met on her way to becoming an aviator.
6. On the board or a piece of chart paper, make a class list of words that describe how Coleman may have felt when she first encountered the obstacles described in the letter and another list of words that describe how she may have felt when she overcame them.
Give the students a large sheet of drawing paper with a line dividing it into halves. Using the words generated in Part II, step 6, for inspiration, have students draw a portrait of Coleman as she faced her challenges on one side and another portrait after she achieved her dream of becoming an aviator on the other. Students may include words and phases in their artwork.
Information for the Teacher
African American Pioneer Aviators
The term black aviation describes a historical fact: For the first half-century of powered flight, blacks flew in segregated circumstances. The story of black aviation is one of breakthroughs against restrictions. First, such isolated pioneers as Bessie Coleman overcame the entrenched discrimination of the time. Coleman’s brief career as a stunt pilot inspired a generation of black youth. Even so, at the time of Lindbergh’s historic flight to Paris in 1927, only a few blacks had become aviators. Racial prejudice excluded most.
In the 1930s African Americans formed flying clubs to promote aviation in the black community. The clubs made it possible for African Americans to participate in aviation: Their members trained pilots and mechanics and promoted aviation through publications, lectures, and even air “circuses.” These air shows drew the curious with promises of “aerial acrobatics, rolls, turns, spins, ribbon cutting, crazy flying.” In 1933 and 1934 the long-distance flights of C. Alfred Anderson and Dr. Albert E. Forsythe displayed both flyers’ skills while appealing for equality in aviation. In Los Angeles William J. Powell set up the Bessie Coleman Aero Club and wrote his visionary book Black Wings, which urged black youth to choose careers in aviation. In Chicago Cornelius R. Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics, served as the first president of the National Airmen’s Association, and built an airstrip in an African American community. Both Powell and Coffey recognized that blacks would need technical skills to advance in aviation.
In 1939 the Chicago flyers, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spurred the federal government to offer aviation training programs for blacks. Congress had established the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program to train pilots for a wartime emergency, and now for the first time African Americans received flight training at federally funded CPT schools. Despite the modest budget allocated for the segregated black training program, the number of licensed black pilots grew dramatically.
When the U.S. Army Air Corps activated the 99th Fighter Squadron in 1942, blacks achieved their first foothold in military aviation. Civil rights leaders long had called for integrating African Americans into the Air Corps, but the War Department continued to resist. When black cadets trained at the newly established Tuskegee Army Airfield, they flew as part of a separate black air force. Between 1941 and 1945, the Tuskegee airmen proved that blacks could be trained and mobilized for the sophisticated task of combat flying. In World War II, the 99th Fighter Squadron and three other all-black fighter units composed the 332d Fighter Group. These units demonstrated that the decision to train African American flyers had been a good one. The 332d’s commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., stressed professionalism and combat efficiency. His leadership helped eliminate hostility toward black participation. Black airmen, returning from the war with a sense of accomplishment, were impatient with the segregation they had experienced both overseas and at home.
The Tuskegee Airmen forever shattered the myth that blacks lacked the technical skills for combat flying. The war years had exposed the cost and inefficiency of maintaining separate black air units. In 1948 President Harry S Truman’s Executive Order 9981 called for equal opportunity in the armed forces. In 1949 the Air Force became the first armed service to integrate. Very slowly, civilian aviation followed suit. In the1960s African Americans were hired and promoted to positions of responsibility in commercial aviation. In 1965 Marlon D. Greene won a long court battle with Continental Airlines over his right to a job as a commercial pilot. As a result of this important case, blacks began to break down racial barriers in the airline industry. In the late 1960s blacks entered the ranks of the space program.
The most recent generation of black aviators has garnered many firsts: Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., the first black four-star general; Dr. Guion Bluford, Jr., first African American to go into space; Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut; and Patrice Clarke-Washington, the first black female captain to fly for a major airline. Nonetheless, progress has been slow, and blacks are still underrepresented in the aviation industry. But with legal obstacles removed, and their participation increasing, today’s flyers could make a reality of William Powell’s vision—“to fill the air with black wings.”
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org