Bessie Coleman soared across the sky as the first African American woman pilot. Coleman’s nicknames were; “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.”. Her journey towards becoming a pilot was not an easy road, however, she continued fighting and standing up for her beliefs no matter the obstacles she had to face.
Her goal was to encourage women and African Americans to reach their dreams. Unfortunately, her career ended with a tragic plane crash, but her life continues to inspire people around the world.
Working hard to achieve her dreams
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. She was one of 13 children. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid, and her father George Coleman was a sharecropper of mixed Native American and African American descent. In 1901, her father decided to move back to Oklahoma to try to escape discrimination. Bessie’s mother decided not to go with him. Instead, the rest of the family stayed in Waxahachie, Texas.
Bessie grew up helping her mother pick cotton and wash laundry to earn money. By the time she was eighteen, she saved enough money to attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, she dropped out of college after a short time because she could not afford to attend.
Turning the "impossible" into reality
At age 23, Coleman went to live with her brothers in Chicago. She went to the Burnham School of Beauty Culture in 1915 and became a manicurist in a local barbershop. Meanwhile, her brothers served in the military during World War I and came home with stories from their time in France. Her brother John teased her because French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes and Bessie could not. This is when Bessie decided to become a pilot.
"I refused to take no for an answer." - Bessie Coleman
She applied to many flight schools across the country, but no school would take her because she was both African American and a woman. Famous African American newspaper publisher, Robert Abbott told her to move to France where she could learn how to fly. She began taking French classes at night because her application to flight schools needed to be written in French.
Finally, Coleman was accepted at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Coleman’s dream was to own a plane and to open her own flight school. She gave speeches and showed films of her air tricks in churches, theaters, and schools to earn money. She refused to speak anywhere that was segregated or discriminated against African Americans.
A true role model
In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. She was famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” in an airplane. People were fascinated by her performances and she became more popular both in the United States and in Europe. She toured the country giving flight lessons, performing in flight shows, and she encouraged African Americans and women to learn how to fly.
"If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets." - Bessie Coleman
Standing up for her beliefs
Coleman's hard work helped her to save up enough money to purchase her own plane, a Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine. Once she returned to her hometown in Texas, she performed for a large crowd. Because Texas was still segregated, the managers planned to create two separate entrances for African Americans and white people to get into the stadium. Coleman refused to perform unless there was only one gate for everyone to use. After many meetings, the managers agreed to have one gate, but people would still have to sit in segregated sections of the stadium. She agreed to perform and became famous for standing up for her beliefs.
Inspire people around the world
On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman took a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills. Wills was piloting the plane, as Coleman sat in the passenger seat. At about 3,000 feet in the air, a loose wrench got stuck in the engine of the aircraft. Wills was no longer able to control the steering wheel and the plane flipped over. Her death was heartbreaking for thousands of people. Famous activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett performed the funeral service to honor Coleman in Chicago. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago started a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year.
Want to read about another legendary aviator? Check out our blog post about Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean!🛫 Click here or on the image below.