Resident pushes for section of US 287 to be named after Bessie Coleman

Chris Roark
Waxahachie Daily Light
Bessie Coleman grew in Waxahachie and earned her pilots license in France in 1921. After earning her wings Coleman came back to Waxahachie on Sept. 26, 1925 and performed an exhibition flights on the Trinity University athletic field, which is now the home of Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Historical re-enactor actor Joanna Maddox from Atlanta will be portraying Coleman at this year’s assembly. She will be honored with a plaque at Mid-Way Regional Airport this Friday.

Jamal Rasheed wants everyone who drives down US 287 in Waxahachie to remember the legacy of Bessie Coleman.

On Wednesday, Rasheed, president of the Ellis County African American Museum and Library, formally submitted a request to TxDOT to name a section of US 287 the Bessie Coleman Memorial Freeway.

If approved, the section of highway in Waxahachie, from the Midlothian border to the Ennis border, would have the name changed.

According to historical documents, Coleman, who lived in Waxahachie in the late 1890s and early 1900s, was an early American civil aviator and was the first African American and first Native American woman to have a pilot's license. She was also the first Black person to have an international pilot’s license.

Rasheed said he wants to recognize Coleman for her accomplishments and let people know she’s a hometown hero.

“She went to school here, and then became known all over the world,” Rasheed said. “It’s important for people to know that.”

Coleman was born on Jan. 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, and was the 10th of 13 children to George and Susan Coleman. The family moved to Waxahachie when Coleman was 2 years old.

She attended a segregated, one-room school where she established herself as a good math student, Rasheed said. Coleman finished her elementary and high school education at the old Oaklawn School on Wyatt Street in Waxahachie.

After a brief stint in college, she pursued her career in aviation, which wasn’t easy. Coleman faced obstacles getting into flight schools in the United States because she was African American and a woman, according to the National Women’s History Museum. So she began taking courses in France, where she obtained her license in 1921.

Coleman performed the first public flight by an African American woman in 1922. For years, she wowed audiences with her tricks, including making the figure eight with the smoke from her plane. She even refused to perform at events where the facility was segregated, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman’s life was cut short when she died in a plane crash.

Over the years, Coleman’s accomplishments have been recognized, including in 2020 when the Ellis County Commissioners Court issued a resolution declaring Jan. 26 as Bessie Coleman Day in Ellis County. The Waxahachie City Council issued a similar proclamation last year. The museum and library has a display focused on Coleman’s life.

A historic marker stands in her honor at Freedman’s Park in Waxahachie, and Bessie Coleman Boulevard was named after her as well.

But Rasheed said a highway section named in her honor would let more people know about Coleman, what she accomplished and where she was from.

“She crossed all lines,” Rasheed said.

TxDOT confirmed Wednesday that there are no naming conflicts on that stretch of US 287, clearing the first hurdle for the highway naming.

Tony Hartzel, spokesman for TxDOT, said the next step is for the Waxahachie City Council to approve a resolution for the name change. The city must also provide a detail of the sign and its placement. Hartzel said the city would be responsible for the cost of the sign.

Rasheed said he is hopeful the process can get started before the end of Black History Month in February.

More to come?

Rasheed said the highway designation is just one effort in bringing awareness to Coleman. Rasheed said he would also like to begin raising money for a statue of Coleman to be located where she used to live, near US 287 and Wyatt Road. He envisions people from outside the city stopping by to take a picture with the statue.

“I think that would bring in a lot of tourism to Waxahachie,” Rasheed said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

He said the cost estimate for the life-size statue is $100,000. A hefty price tag, but he said it’s doable.

“Calling a couple of athletes will get it done,” Rasheed said.

Rasheed said he would also like to relocate the historical marker that’s at Freedman’s Park to closer to where Coleman used to live.

“People don’t know where she lived,” Rasheed said. “A historical marker is supposed to be at the location of what you’re emphasizing.”

These efforts are just some of what Rasheed and other members of the Ellis County African American Hall of Fame Museum and Library hope to accomplish to preserve the county’s African American history.

“We need to maintain the historical significance,” Rasheed said. “The African American history is slowly going away. And there won’t be anybody here to tell the stories. The museum tries to do that in the city and in the county.”