Bessie Coleman

  • On January 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. She was one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, who worked as sharecroppers. Her father, who was of Native American and African American descent, left the family searching for better opportunities in Oklahoma when Coleman was a child. Her mother did her best to support the family, and the children contributed as soon as they were old enough.

    At 12 years old, Coleman began attending the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas. After graduating, she embarked on a journey to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), where she completed only one term due to financial constraints. In 1915, at 23 years old, Coleman moved to Chicago with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. Not long after her move to Chicago, she began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation.

    In 1921, a time of both gender and racial discrimination, Coleman broke barriers and became the world's first Black woman to earn a pilot's license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she took it upon herself to learn French and move to France to achieve her goal. After only seven months, Coleman earned her license from France's well-known Caudron Brother's School of Aviation.

    Though she wanted to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. She earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. In 1922, On September 3, 1922, she became the first African American woman in America to make a public flight. At Curtiss Field near New York, Coleman performed in a plane borrowed from Glenn Curtiss in front of thousands. More shows followed in Memphis and Chicago, and then in Texas in June 1925.

    On April 30, 1926, Coleman was tragically killed at only 34 years old when an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show sent her plummeting to her death. Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.

    Only after her death did Bessie Coleman receive the attention she deserved. Her dream of a flying school for African Americans became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929. As a result of being affiliated, educated, or inspired directly or indirectly by the aero club, flyers like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, The Tuskeegee Airmen, and others continued to make Bessie’s dream a reality.

    In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual flyover at Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery to honor Bessie. In 1977, women pilots in Chicago established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Bessie Coleman” stamp commemorating “her singular accomplishment in becoming the world’s first African American pilot and, by definition, an American legend.”