Bessie Coleman: First African American Female Aviator
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 and soon joined her family in the cotton fields. In Chicago years later, Bessie decided she would become a flier. She had to go to France to find a school that would take her, as the skies proved easier to conquer than contemporary prevailing stereotypes. Fulfilling her dream sparked a revolution and led the way for new generations of dreamers and future aviation legends, such as the Tuskegee airmen.
- She was the first civilian licensed African-American pilot in the world.
- She toured the country barnstorming, parachute jumping, and giving lectures to raise money for an African-American flying school.
- Bessie would only perform if the crowds were desegregated and entered thru the same gates.
Bessie Coleman was born the tenth of thirteen children January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her parents, Susan and George Coleman, were sharecroppers. In 1901, George Coleman left his family to return to Oklahoma. Bessie’s mother found work as a cook/housekeeper. Bessie completed all eight grades of her one-room school, yearning for more. She saved her money and then in 1910 took her savings and enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Bessie completed only one term before running out of money and returning to Waxahachie.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Bessie Coleman went to Chicago to stay with her brother. All she wanted was a chance to “amount to something.” She became a beautician and worked as a manicurist in the barbershops of Chicago’s south side where she met Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender.
Both brothers had served in France during World War I. Her brother John one day said “I know something that French women do that you’ll never do – Fly!” That was the last straw; Bessie decided then that she would become the first licensed black pilot.
When Bessie couldn’t find anyone to teach her to fly, she took the advice of publisher Abbott and prepared herself to attend aviation school in France. Bessie departed for France in November 1919.
Returning to New York in September 1921, she was greeted by a surprising amount of press coverage. Flying as entertainment could provide financial benefits for an aviator, but required skills that Bessie did not have. Again, she departed for France for more training.
When Bessie returned to the United States, she knew she needed publicity to attract paying audiences. Her first appearance was an air show on September 3, 1922 at Curtiss Field near New York. In a plane borrowed from Glenn Curtiss, she was checked out in the Jenny in front of the crowd. More shows followed in Memphis and Chicago, and then in Texas in June 1925.
She traveled to California to earn money to buy a plane of her own, but promptly crashed that plane and returned to Chicago to form a new plan. It was another two years before she finally succeeded in lining up a series of lectures and exhibition flights in Texas. At Love Field, she made a down payment on an old Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine.
Bessie then traveled to the southeast where she did a series of lectures in black theaters in Florida and Georgia. She opened a beauty shop in Orlando to hasten her accumulation of funds to start the long-awaited aviation school. Using borrowed planes, she continued exhibition flying and occasional parachute jumping. As she had done in other U.S. locations, Bessie refused to perform unless the audiences were desegregated and everyone attending used the same gates.
Bessie made the final payment on her plane in Dallas and arranged to have it flown to Jacksonville. On the evening of April 30, 1926, she and her mechanic took the plane up for a test flight. Once aloft, the plane malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Bessie fell from the open cockpit several hundred feet to her death.
Five thousand mourners attended a memorial service for Bessie in Orlando. An estimated 15,000 people paid their respects in Chicago – at the funeral of that little girl from Texas who dreamed of a better life as she picked cotton at the dawn of the 20th century.
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.”