Madeline McCray was hooked the moment a friend told her about Bessie Coleman. It was 1986, and she was being advised not to wait around for a call from Hollywood. Create your own opportunity to express yourself as an artist, she was told.
First, she shook her head in disbelief that it was the first time she’d even heard the woman’s name, let alone her incomparable accomplishment. The injustice of that oversight, combined with her own burning desire to perform, propelled McCray into action.
McCray started going from library to library in New York City, asking for books, tapes—anything on the pioneer aviator. At each location, she was informed that there were no books or papers available. The librarians were all very nice, they tried to be helpful, making suggestions of places she might try. And she did follow those suggestions, but unfortunately, they rendered nothing. Her frustration mounted, but McCray was not in the mood to let it rest.
Finally, a small library in New Jersey, where she lived at the time, located a single-page article about the daring girl pilot. The article had been published in 1977 in Ebony magazine and was later republished in Essence. It wasn’t much, but at least it was a place to start.
As a writer, McCray read and reread that article over and over. She then decided to do what writers must do: write. She pieced together a story; it was sufficient to create a monologue to perform, however, Madeline wasn’t satisfied. She felt as though she was taking far too much creative license with the story of a human being who’d sacrificed her life to become the first female Black pilot.
McCray absorbed enough of Coleman’s spirit from that article to realize that the only thing bigger than Coleman’s ambitious plan was her heart and her passion to learn how to fly so that she could open a flying school to teach other Blacks.
The actress in her wanted very much to perform and the writer was anxious too. But McCray felt that this story was too special, too unique to simply use as a tool to gain accolades for a performance. This was Coleman’s story, and after so many years of her accomplishments being completely ignored in American history, her life deserved to be told truthfully. McCray felt she owed that to her and to anyone who would sit in a seat to watch, listen and learn about a phenomenal woman from our past. McCray, setting aside her original script, decided to pick up where she left off when something real showed up.
One day, while sharing her frustration, another friend suggested that she visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
“My excitement was reignited, and this time I wouldn’t be disappointed. I walked up to the librarian and asked if there were any books on Bessie Coleman. The lady said no, but then she continued, ’Come with me.’
“I was led to a huge machine. She pushed a few buttons and there she was—Bessie Coleman. I stood at that microfilm machine all day, with a huge grin on my face, inserting quarters and printing page after beautiful page of my shero’s story. For me, it was like winning the lottery. I sat in the Schomburg reading letters from family, articles and interviews she’d given in the 1920s. I was satisfied, I was happy, because I’d done the right thing to wait.
“Now, I’ve come full circle to perform her life story on stage at the Schomburg Center on March 14 at 6:30 p.m. It’s like a dream coming true again, Bessie’s and mine!”
- For more information, visit www.nypl.org/locations/schomburg.