The Story Of Bessie Coleman – America’s First Black Female Pilot

Bessie Coleman Plane
Bessie Coleman and her plane in 1922.

As the age of commercial flying was still a decade away, Coleman's only way to make a living as a pilot was to perform for audiences as a stunt flier.

In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman awarded a pilot license after facing a slew of hurdles that were nonexistent to white or male pilots. Based on her gender and color, she was denied admission to all the aviation schools she applied to in the United States. To achieve her dream she saved money, learned French, and traveled abroad to enroll in a flight school. Though her life had a tragic ending, her remarkable story lives on.

Bessie Coleman Had A Dream
The tenth of 12 children, Bessie Coleman was born in rural Texas in 1892. Her mother was black and her father was part black and mostly Cherokee. Both parents were sharecroppers who couldn’t read, but Bessie would walk four miles every day to attend a one-room segregated school where she learned to read and excelled in math.

In 1916 Coleman moved to Chicago, Ill., where she lived with her brothers and worked odd jobs while reading stories about pilots in World War I, which sparked her interest in aviation. Unfortunately for Coleman, African Americans, and Native Americans weren’t admitted to aviation schools in the United States.

One unlikely job led to Bessie Coleman to her dream. Working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, she overheard customers reading and talking about female pilots in France. That gave her an idea.

Coleman began saving money for pilot school and received additional funding from Jesse Binga – a prominent businessman and entrepreneur who become the wealthiest African American banker in Chicago. She also enrolled in French language classes at the Berlitz school in Chicago.

Coleman’s Trip Abroad, Learning To Fly
On Nov. 20, 1920, Coleman traveled to France and attended the famous flight school, École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron, where she was the only student of color in her class. Coleman learned to fly on the Nieuport 82 biplane, which she described as having, “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.”

Nonetheless, it took her just seven months to learn how to fly.

In June 1921 the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot license, making her the first African American woman and first Native American woman to do so. In September of that year, Coleman headed to New York, where she was met with acclaim and became a media sensation.

Bessie Coleman Pilot License
Bessie Coleman’s 1921 pilot License.

However, her fame was short lived. As the age of commercial flying was still a decade away, Coleman’s only way to make a living as a pilot was to perform for audiences as a stunt flier. And to do that, she needed more education. Returning to Chicago, she hit the same obstacle she initially encountered; nobody was willing to teach her. So once again, she traveled to Europe.

She spent a year in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. After completing an advanced course in France, she met with Anthony Fokker in the Netherlands. Fokker was a Dutch aircraft manufacturer and aviation pioneer. A top pilot from the Fokker Corporation gave Coleman additional training.

Bessie Coleman
Coleman in flight gear.

Bessie Coleman’s Success, Tragedy, And Inspirational Legacy

With newfound confidence, Coleman returned to the United States in 1922, where she traveled around the country performing aerial acrobatic stunts. Her stunts, like parachuting from planes, would dazzle the crowds. She took on the stage name “Queen Bess,” and became noted for her flamboyant, daring exhibition flying. At a show in Los Angeles in 1923, she broke a leg and three ribs after her plane stalled and crashed.

Despite her popularity, Coleman didn’t ignore the struggles she faced on her journey to success. She only performed at shows if the crowds were racially integrated and allowed to go through the same entrance. She also had dreams of establishing her own flying school in which women and African Americans would be admitted.

Tragically, the flying school wouldn’t happen. In 1926, Coleman was going through a practice run with a young white pilot named William Wills, in Jacksonville, Fla. The two were 10 minutes into the flight when the engine stopped working. It happened while they were in the middle of a dive, and Coleman was ejected from the plane and fell to her death. Meanwhile, Wills died after going down with the plane.

Coleman Stamp
The Bessie Coleman stamp, released in 1995.

Despite Coleman’s sad end, her story is a lasting one. In 1992, the Chicago City Council requested a postage stamp in her honor, stating, “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude, and her determination to succeed.”
The Bessie Coleman stamp was released in 1995. In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

As for Bessie Coleman’s desire and will to become a pilot in a time when she had little rights, she is once said, “The air is the only place free from prejudices.”

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