A memorial on Long Island prompts questions about influential black pilot

HEMPSTEAD, Nassau County (WABC) -- A memorial on Long Island honoring famous pilots from the early 20th century prompted scrutiny about whether the area historical society had failed to recognize an influential black pilot named Bessie Coleman.

That tribute is in the Town of Hempstead where Curtiss Airfield used to be.

According to historians, the airfield was a busy place in the late 1920s and 1930s before John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport took over air travel in the region.

More recently, the old Curtiss Airfield was transformed into a shopping center and the Valley Stream Historical Society placed a historical marker at the center to honor pioneering pilots who had taken off and landed from that spot.

The sign honors Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the first male and female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean; Jimmy Doolittle, a famous combat pilot; Frank Hawks, a record-setting pilot for travel speeds; Wiley Post, the first pilot to fly solo around the world; and Elinor Smith, the first female test pilot and at one point, the youngest licensed pilot in the world.

The sign does not recognize Coleman, the first African American to receive a pilot's license in 1921.

Coleman traveled to France to train when no one in the US would allow her into their schools.

She returned to the US and flew out of a Curtiss Airfield on Long Island in 1922.

The flight marked her first US air show and the early days of her dream to raise enough money by performing daring stunts at air shows to open a flight school for African American pilots in the US.

She died just short of reaching that dream but her legacy has inspired many others to pursue their own dreams.

"I was just surprised that she was not on this list," said Lisa Middleton Thompson, an area resident and Bessie Coleman enthusiast who noticed the sign. "It was so important to me that I called the Town of Hempstead immediately."

Thompson read about Coleman as a young girl and immediately, Coleman became Thompson's hero.

"The fact that this woman could fly and she was African American, that was amazing," Thompson said. "She was determined."

Thompson also called Eyewitness News.

Using old historical records and newspaper clippings, Eyewitness News determined Coleman had not flown out of the Curtiss Airfield in the Town of Hempstead marked by that sign which was receiving scrutiny.

That airfield opened two years after Coleman's death.

Coleman had flown out of another airfield by the same name, also on Long Island in Garden City.

Nothing marks that airfield today.

"You would figure that history would give you the benefit of that kind of accomplishment but no," said Madeline McCray, an actress and writer who portrays Bessie Coleman in a play she wrote, 'A Dream to Fly: Bessie Coleman.

McCray said she wrote the play in the hopes of increasing the number of roles for women of color and particularly roles portraying "heroes." She has since become a huge Coleman fan.

"I just fell in love with who she was. Bessie Coleman made a way out of no way," McCray said. "I mean this woman born on a plantation in Texas, learned to speak another language, and got on a ship and sailed to France."

While the historical marker by the Valley Stream Historical Society didn't wrongly leave out Coleman's name, the sign continues to raise questions for Thompson and others about who gets recognized, who gets memorialized and why.

"She shouldn't remain a hidden figure," Thompson said. "Hopefully others will want to learn about this amazing lady."

Coleman has been recognized in other ways. The US Postal Service honored her with a stamp in 1995.

Also, in Chicago, where Coleman is buried, pilots fly over her grave on the anniversary of her death, April 30, 1926.

Coleman died during a mid-air accident while preparing for an air show in Florida. She was 34.

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