Fri, Jan 31, 2014
By Matt Soergel
Bessie Coleman was an American civil aviator who died over Jacksonville in 1926.
The CEO of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority said it’s likely that Jacksonville International Airport will open an aviation hall of fame by the middle of next year. And when it does, one of the first inductees would be Bessie Coleman, a pioneering pilot who fell to her death over the city in 1926.
That’s a great idea, said the man pushing to have a prominent memorial for Coleman in the city where she died. But it’s still not enough, he said.
“I’m not happy about that at all,” said Opio Sokoni. “We’ll put her in there with everybody else, which dilutes her and what she really means to this city. There’s no pilot, anywhere else, that has such an interesting story.”
Coleman, the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, was the first black woman to get a pilot’s license, and had to go to France to get it. She was a nationwide celebrity known as “Queen Bess,” famed for her boldness, perseverance and beauty.
On Aug. 30, 1926, she was over the Westside, scouting sites for a parachute jump for an air show the next day. Coleman was thrown to her death when the plane in which she was a passenger went into a sudden dive.
The plane exploded on impact, killing pilot William Wills.
Thousands of people attended a memorial service in Jacksonville for Coleman before her body was put on a train to Chicago for a huge funeral there.
Sokoni is a Jacksonville native who recently became president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He stressed that his efforts to honor Coleman, somewhere in the city, are as a private citizen.
He found a supporter in Steve Grossman, CEO of the JAA, who said he favored doing something at the city’s main airport.
And in a Monday email to Sokoni and several other people — including city councilmen Bill Gulliford and Warren Jones, who have expressed interest in honoring Coleman — he said the airport is “leaning” toward opening an aviation hall of fame. It would be in the terminal building, a project included in next year’s budget planning process.
“I believe it will be an excellent venue to honor Jacksonville aviators and by having (it) in the terminal, millions of people will be able to view it,” he wrote.
Sokoni said that’s fine, but just not enough of an honor for such a figure. He said she also deserves a separate airport monument, such as a life-sized bust of her likeness.
Jacksonville does have one reminder that Coleman died in the city. In 2012, a bronze plaque of “Queen Bess” was placed at Paxon School for Advanced Studies, on the site of the 1920s airport where her fatal flight began.
It was unveiled by the Bessie Coleman Aerospace Legacy Inc., which was founded by a group of African-American female pilots and aviation professionals.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082