Memorial to celebrity aviator Bessie Coleman could find home at Jacksonville's airport

Sun, Oct 27, 2013
Matt Soergel

The famous and daring Bessie Coleman plunged to her death in Jacksonville in 1926, falling 2,000 feet from an airplane over the Westside. The death of the woman known as “Queen Bess” was headline news all across the country.
Then America moved on, to other dramas, other tragedies, other heroes.
More than 87 years later, though, her life could soon be honored again at a most appropriate place — in the airport of the city where she died.
Jacksonville native Opio Sokoni has been pushing for a memorial somewhere in the city to Coleman, who was the first black woman to get a pilot’s license. He’s suggested a statue of her, or a street, park or school named after her.
He recently found a supporter in Steve Grossman, CEO of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, who said he favors doing something at Jacksonville International Airport to recognize Coleman.
Grossman said he’s not sure what that would be yet, though he plans to get the project moving in the next few weeks. “I would like to figure out: What should we do, and where should we do it?” he said.
He’s familiar with Coleman’s story; when he was head of the airport in Oakland, Calif., he supported efforts there to name a street after her. “It was the right thing to do,” he said.
Coleman was a nationwide celebrity, famed for her perseverance, boldness and beauty. She died Aug. 30, 1926, the day before a big air show in Jacksonville, after she and pilot William Wills took off to scout where she would make a parachute jump the next day.
During the flight, the plane went into a sudden dive — reports said a wrench slid and jammed the controls — and Coleman, who had been peering over the side, was thrown to her death. Wills was killed as the plane exploded on impact.
In 2012, a bronze plaque with Coleman’s likeness was placed at the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies. In the 1920s, that was the site of the airfield where the ill-fated flight began. But Sokoni thinks more should be done for her.
And what better place, he said, than an airport?
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082



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