Monday, February 26, 2024

Pilot Bessie Coleman

I just learned about this fascinating aviatrix while looking for a story to post for the end of Black History Month. Take a look at some of her story from Wikipedia:

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 and grew up in a family of 13 children. 

In 1915, at the age of 23, Coleman moved to ChicagoIllinois, where she lived with her brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, where she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I. She took a second job as a restaurant manager of a chili parlor to save money in hopes of becoming a pilot herself. American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor black people, so Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, encouraged her to study abroad. Abbot publicized Coleman's quest in his newspaper and she received financial sponsorship from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.

Bessie Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz Language Schools in Chicago and then traveled to Paris, France, on November 20, 1920, so that she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."

On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first black woman and first self-identified Native American to earn an aviation pilot's license and the first black person and first self-identified Native American to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and, in September 1921, she sailed for America. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

She used her platform to do events, like parachute jumps, and give lectures, all with the aim of opening an African-American flying school. Coleman would only perform for desegregated crowds. 

On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow and had to make three forced landings along the way because the plane had been so poorly maintained. Upon learning this, Coleman's friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it, but she refused. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. She was planning a parachute jump for the next day and was unharnessed as she needed to look over the side to examine the terrain.

About ten minutes into the flight, the plane unexpectedly went into a dive and then a spin at 3,000 feet above the ground. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m), and was killed instantly when she hit the ground. Wills was unable to regain control of the plane, and it plummeted to the ground. He died upon impact. The plane exploded, bursting into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.

Such an accomplished woman! Tragic that she died so young. For her complete story, click here. Had you ever heard of Bessie Coleman?

Monday, February 19, 2024

Alexander Pushkin: Little Known Facts


Portrait of A. Pushkin by Konstantin Somov
In honor of Black History Month, today I'm featuring Russian novelist Alexander Pushkin. Some are surprised to find out he has African ancestry. Though he lived a short life, it was one of great accomplishment!

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 –1837) was a Russian author of the Romantic era and is considered the greatest Russian poet and founder of modern Russian literature.  Pushkin was born into the Russian nobility in Moscow and published his first poem at age fifteen.  He was widely recognized by the literary establishment by the time he graduated from the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum.

On June 6, 1999, Russia celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pushkin's birth. A London Times headline read, "Pushkin Mania rages: Russians cash in on bicentenary of their poet's birth". Reporting from Moscow, Anna Blundy noted: "Russia has been swept by Puskhinmania in preparation for tomorrow's bicentenary of the poet's birth...Russians all know long tracts of Pushkin's work by heart, and Sunday's festival is the dominant theme of most television, and radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and advertising campaigns."

In Russia, Pushkin seems to be a combination of Shakespeare and Mozart rolled into one. As Shakespeare is to the English language, Pushkin is to Russian literature.  

But, regardless of Pushkin's greatness, according to Selwyn Cudjoe, "at the beginning of the 19th century, Pushkin's Africanness was an issue. Throughout his life, his pronounced African features-thick lips, dark skin and kinky hair-remained an issue and Pushkin was acutely aware of them. Yet, he always took pride in his African ancestry."

Pushkin's great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), a Black African page raised by Peter the Great (see more on him in last week's post, or check out the link that follows). This information is from Cudjoe's article Pushkin: Russian African Genius:

...Pushkin suffered from a sense of his own "ugliness" and the taunts of his classmates. At the lycee where he studied when he was 12, he was nicknamed "monkey". However some of his school friends called him "the Frenchman" because they thought he was a "mixture of a monkey and a tiger".

This "stain" of his blackness remained with him. In 1827, he returned to his family mansion in Mikhaylovskoe where he began his unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great, based on the life of his great grandfather. In this highly fictionalized account of his ancestor Grannibal, Pushkin centered his story on "a Negro's wife, who is unfaithful to her husband, gives birth to a white child and is punished by being shut up in a convent". Even as he tells this gripping story, the sexual prowess of the black man in a white world assumes much importance.

Perhaps, it is wise that Pushkin did not finish telling this story. It would have had to come up against the scurrilous attacks of those who preferred to believe that he came from a slave background. In fact, he was forced to defend Abram's honor against the calumny of Fruddy Bulgarin, a crusading journalist. Putting the question in verse, Pushkin said: "Filyarin says he understands/That my black granddad, Gannibal/ Bought for a bottle of rum, once fell/Into a drunk sea captain's hands." To this, he responded: "My grandfather, so cheaply bought,/ The Tsar himself treated with trust/And gave him welcome at his court./ Black, but never again a slave."
Pushkin died young.  Notorious about defending his honor, he fought a total of twenty-nine duels.  Though rumored to be a womanizer, when it was reported that his wife's brother-in-law, Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès had made attempts to seduce Pushkin's wife, Pushkin challenged d'Anthès to a duel.  Pushkin died two days later, having been shot through the spleen.  He was 37.

Are any of these facts new to you? Also, have you read any Pushkin? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Frederick Douglass' Irish Book Tour

It's the middle of Black History Month and many, including me, wonder why the month of February was chosen to celebrate it. Well, it's because the birthdays of the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln fall during this month.

Speaking of Frederick Douglass, I found an interesting article in The Irish Examiner that discussed his lecture tour in Ireland back in 1845 to promote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I never imagined him going on a book tour, let alone to Europe! 

Irish author Colum McCann used this part of Douglass' life in his novel TransAtlantic, a National Book Award Winner. Here's more from The Irish Examiner:

The renowned Irish novelist Colum McCann emigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. He spent almost two decades publishing big, imaginative novels about characters like ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as well as the high-wire artist Philippe Petit in his masterpiece Let The Great World Spin before returning to write about Ireland and its history in his novel, TransAtlantic.

At the heart of TransAtlantic is Frederick Douglass’s story. Douglass visited Ireland for several months on a lecture tour to promote his best-selling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and to raise awareness and money for the abolitionist movement in the United States. The timing of his visit is noteworthy – Douglass arrived in Ireland in autumn 1845, just as the Great Famine was sweeping through the country.

“I thought it was an incredible story – and one we needed to hear, especially in Ireland,” says McCann about the spark for his novel. “Here was the story of a man, 27 years old, a visionary, an abolitionist, yet still a 'slave', arriving in Ireland just as the Famine began to unfold. He had already published his memoir but there was an Irish edition forthcoming. And he landed among the gentry of Ireland, largely the Anglo-Irish. He toured around the country. His few months in Ireland were among the happiest in his life. ‘I breathe,’ he said, ‘and lo! the chattel becomes a man.’ ”

Douglass, who was born in 1818, escaped a live of slavery in Maryland by making a break for the north where he became an anti-slavery activist. Interestingly in later life, he was on the ticket as a vice-presidential nominee for one of the candidates in the 1872 US presidential election race, a century and a half before Kamala Harris became the first person of colour to get the job.

His Irish lecture tour was a success: he spoke to packed crowds in several cities, including Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford. 

In Cork, he spoke at the Imperial Hotel to an audience that included John Francis Maguire, the founder of this newspaper (The Irish Examiner). The hotel has a plaque commemorating his visit. Douglass did not, however, critique the handling of the Famine during his lectures, which is perhaps a surprise given he was a human rights activist.

“At first I was surprised that he did not speak out about the Famine and the conditions that the Irish were forced to suffer under British rule,” says McCann. “He remained largely silent about it. But gradually I began to understand why – he was in Ireland in order to further the cause of the three million of his people still enslaved in the United States."

For the complete article click here:

I found this fascinating! Did you know Frederick Douglass toured Europe to promote his autobiography? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Monday, February 5, 2024

What Inspired The Exorcist?

With all the evil that's coming out of the shadows right now, I'm reminded of the movie The Exorcist, about the exorcism of a demonic spirit from a young girl. That movie was released in 1973 when I was in sixth grade. I certainly didn't see it then, and I have no plans to see it today. I am too much of a wimp to sit through something that scary. 

Nowadays I'm wondering what world leaders involved politics, economics, or healthcare could stand a good exorcism. I digress. The movie was based on the novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. But what inspired his novel? An actual exorcism. Take a look at this article, "Inside the Harrowing Exorcism of Roland Doe," featured on

Roland Doe

Public DomainRoland Doe, the pseudonym of Ronald Hunkeler, the boy whose harrowing exorcism in 1949 later inspired The Exorcist.

In the picturesque Bel-Nor neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, sits a beautiful, Colonial-style house on Roanoke Drive that was once the home of a boy called Roland Doe, a.k.a. Robbie Mannheim or Ronald Hunkeler.

It looks normal on the outside, with an all-brick exterior and white shutters framing the windows. Huge trees and neatly manicured bushes dot the yard. Yet one of the most extraordinary horror stories in American history transformed this house into a landmark for the macabre and provided the true story of The Exorcist.

Roland Doe

Discovery via Getty ImagesThe St. Louis house once home to “Roland Doe” as seen in 2015.

The story began in January 1949 in Washington, D.C., where 13-year-old Ronald Hunkeler, a.k.a. Roland Doe began exhibiting disturbing behavior that left his parents baffled and terrified. He was calm and normal during the day, but at night, he would suddenly erupt into screaming fits and other wild outbursts. Meanwhile, he would enter a trance-like state, make sounds in a guttural voice, and break out in scratches and red lines all over his body.

After getting nowhere with doctors, his horrified parents brought him to where their relatives lived in St. Louis and called in Jesuit priests to carry out a harrowing series of exorcisms. As they desperately tried to wrest the demons from his body, they claimed that the boy’s bed moved on its own, slid violently across the room, and knocked them over.

Finally, on April 18, the priests laid holy relics and crucifixes upon Ronald, shouting at Satan and telling the demon that St. Michael would battle him for the boy’s soul.

Seven minutes later, Ronald came out of his trance and told them simply, “He’s gone.”

The true story behind The Exorcist begins in the late 1940s in suburban Washington, D.C., with a German-American family.

Their 13-year-old, believed to be named Ronald Hunkeler (later referred to pseudonymously as “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim”), was despondent over the loss of his beloved Aunt Harriet. Harriet was a spiritualist who’d taught him many things — including how to use a Ouija board.

Roland Doe Exorcism

Wikimedia CommonsFather E. Albert Hughes, the first priest who attempted to perform an exorcism on Roland Doe   

In early January 1949, shortly after Harriet’s death, Ronald Hunkeler began to experience strange things. He heard scratching sounds coming from the floors and walls of his room. Water dripped inexplicably from pipes and walls. Most troubling of all was that his mattress would suddenly move.

Disturbed, Ronald’s family sought the help of every expert they knew. The family consulted doctors, psychiatrists, and their local Lutheran minister, but they were no help. The minister suggested that the family seek the assistance of the Jesuits.

Father E. Albert Hughes, the local Catholic priest, asked his superiors’ permission to perform an exorcism on the teenager in late February of 1949. The church granted Hughes’ request.

For the exorcism, Hughes strapped the boy to the mattress and began his recitations. But he had to stop the rite when Ronald broke off a piece of mattress spring and slashed the priest across his shoulders, leaving the exorcism unfinished.

A few days later, red scratches appeared on Roland Doe. One of the scratches formed the word ‘LOUIS,’ which indicated to Ronald’s mother that the family needed to go to St. Louis, where the Hunkelers had relatives, to find a way to save their son.

William Bowdern

Public DomainWilliam Bowdern, one of two priests who performed the St. Louis exorcism of Roland Doe

A cousin of the family was attending St. Louis University at the time of Ronald’s struggles. She put the Hunkelers in touch with Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern. After consulting with the university’s president, these two Jesuits agreed to perform an exorcism on young Ronald with the help of several assistants.

The men gathered at the residence on Roanoke Drive in early March of 1949. There, the exorcists witnessed scratching on the boy’s body and the mattress moving violently. These were the same types of things that had happened in Maryland when the first exorcism failed.

Amid these bizarre happenings, Bowdern and Halloran, according to their reports, noticed a pattern in Ronald’s behavior. He was calm and normal during the day. But at night, after settling in for bed, he would exhibit strange behavior, including screaming and wild outbursts.

Ronald would also enter a trance-like state and start making sounds in a guttural voice. The priests also said they saw objects mysteriously flying in the boy’s presence and noted that he would react violently when he saw any sacred object presented by the attending Jesuits.

All of these details from the true story of The Exorcist made it into the film. But there were more that didn’t. 

For the complete article, click here.

Have you ever seen The Exorcist? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!