A little over a century ago, the first black woman took to the skies to become a legendary aviation pioneer.
Bessie Coleman came from humble roots, but her legacy speaks of an extraordinary life that has inspired and captivated millions. Her life was full of excitement, struggle, success, and danger.
Read on to discover the fascinating life and times of the indomitable Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot.
The Early Days
Bessie was born in late January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her parents were sharecroppers named George and Susan Coleman, and they had thirteen children in total.
George was black and Native American, and he supported his family as a day laborer. Susan was black and worked as domestic help for a white family in town. They lived on a small farm outside of Waxahachie, Texas.
In 1901, George moved to Oklahoma to avoid the brutal discrimination found in Texas. Susan did not accompany him and chose to stay near Waxahachie with their children.
Bessie started attending a segregated one-room schoolhouse when she was six years old. The school was a four-mile walk that young Bessie trekked every day. She enjoyed reading and showed an early aptitude for math.
Every year, Coleman had to take time off from her education to work when the cotton harvest came around. Despite her familial responsibilities, Bessie proved to be an avid scholar, and her hard work eventually paid off.
When she was 12, Bessie Coleman received a scholarship offer to study at the Missionary Baptist Church School.
Growing up, Bessie could have heard the news about several aviation milestones, including the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903. She might have heard about Baroness Raymonde de la Roche and Harriet Quimby, the first woman to earn their pilot licenses.
Whatever happened in her formative years, one thing is true. Bessie developed a love of learning that would last her whole life and decided very early that she wanted to do extraordinary things.
Though she had not yet explored the sky, Bessie was not afraid to reach for the stars and pursue her dreams, no matter how difficult her early upbringing might have been.
Leaving the Nest
At the tender age of 18, Bessie had saved enough money to enroll herself at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Today, the school is known as Langston University.
Unfortunately, Bessie could only afford one term at Langston before she had to return home to Texas. In 1915, like millions of other minorities in the American south, Bessie made the Great Migration by heading north. All of them were looking to free themselves of systemic racism in the south.
Bessie settled in Chicago with two of her brothers, and then she immediately started school at the Burnham School of Beauty Culture.
Soon, she had garnered a position as a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop. Coleman quickly earned a reputation as the fastest manicurist in black Chicago.
That reputation helped her land a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, owned by a trainer from the Chicago American League baseball club.
Here, Bessie met the editor of the “Chicago Defender” Robert Abbott. Abbott soon became a hero figure to Bessie, and the Defender became her favorite newspaper.
When Bessie returned home after work at night, she would sometimes listen to stories about her brothers and their tours in France during World War I. Her brother John teased his headstrong sister about how French women had one up on her. French women could learn how to fly, but Bessie could not.
Though there were virtually no women pilots in America then, Bessie did not let that fact deter her. She got a second job as the manager of a chili parlor to save up enough money and travel abroad so she could become a pilot.
It was Robert Abbott who encouraged Bessie to pursue her education in Europe. Abbott even helped sponsor her alongside a wealthy Chicago banker named Jesse Binga. The Defender also covered her inspiring journey in the press.
Spreading Her Wings
Bessie Coleman had to take a French-language class at the Berlitz Language School in Chicago to fill out her flight school application. She prepared well and earned a place at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France.
On November 20th, 1920, Bessie took the savings earned from her two jobs and set sail for France on board the S.S. Impersonator. She was the only black student in her class and learned how to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane.
During her aviation training, Coleman witnessed one of her fellow students die in a disastrous plane crash, which shocked and devastated her. Even so, that spectacle was not enough to scare her off.
In June 1921, Bessie Coleman made history when she became the first black woman and the first Native American woman to earn an aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Students who received a license from the FAI had to demonstrate expert skill sets and perform complicated emergency maneuvers to earn their credentials. Bessie excelled at her aviation schooling, and by September of 1921, she was headed back to America. Her return caused a bit of a media frenzy when she first arrived.
Just after her return to the States, Coleman was invited to attend an all-Black musical called “Shuffle Along” as a guest of honor, and she accepted. At one point in the evening, the whole audience got to their feet and gave Bessie a standing ovation.
Persistence Makes Perfect
In the early 20s, America was still more than a decade away from the dawn of the commercial flight industry. There were far fewer jobs for pilots to take and even fewer for female pilots like Bessie.
If she was going to make any money, Bessie knew she was going to have to learn a few fancy tricks. She would need to become a barnstorming flier, a stunt pilot. Barnstormers were known for performing death-defying aerial stunts for awe-struck audiences around the country.
This was a highly competitive industry, and Bessie knew she needed more training if she wanted to have any real shot at her dream job. She could find no one to teach her what she needed to know in America, so she returned to Europe in February of 1922.
For the next few months, Bessie completed an advanced aviation course and then traveled to the Netherlands. Here, she met Anthony Fokker, one of the most famous aircraft designers in the world. Bessie spent some time in Germany, as well, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional flight training.
Once her training was finished, Bessie was ready to return home once again and jumpstart her career as an exhibitionist pilot. She made it back to America in September of 1922. Her end goal was to open a flying school for black Americans, but she had to make a name for herself first.
Shortly after her arrival, Bessie made her first flying appearance at an airshow to honor the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. The airshow took place at Curtiss Field on Long Island, New York. Bessie’s old friend Robert Abbott sponsored the event.
After that, Bessie appeared in another air show celebrating an all-black regiment, this time in Chicago. She honored World War I’s 370th Infantry Regiment with breath-taking aerial feats like near-ground dips and figure-eight loops.
Exhibitions like this gained her the moniker “Brave Bessie” because she was fearless in the sky. She was also not afraid to speak her mind and stand for her beliefs. Bessie often gave speeches to inspire women and black people to pursue flying. She would boycott a performance if it was segregated, refusing to perform where she witnessed discrimination against minorities.
Bessie also traveled the country, giving flight lessons and showing footage of her tricks in schools, theaters, and churches to drum up revenue. She was successful, and soon bought her plane, a Jenny JN-4 with an OX-5 engine. She no longer had to rent or borrow planes to work. Now she was a pilot with her own set of real-life wings.
A Dangerous Profession
Bessie certainly got an early taste of success after her return to America, but two years into her budding career as a pilot, Coleman suffered her first major airplane crash. In February of 1923, Bessie’s plane crashed mid-flight, and she suffered some painful injuries.
She suffered lacerations on her face, a handful of cracked ribs, and a broken leg. Though it would take some time, Coleman was lucky enough to heal fully from all her injuries. Even though the situation was scary and might have discouraged some, Bessie was not so easily dissuaded from her dream.
Even while she was still recuperating in the hospital, the world’s first female black pilot was already planning her return to the sky. She claimed her survival was proof that flying a plane was less dangerous than driving a car on the roads below.
All in all, it would take Bessie many months to fully recover from her injuries. When she first left the hospital, Coleman stayed at the home of Mrs. S.E Jones until she was well enough to return to Chicago. When she returned to Chicago, Bessie quickly booked five nightly lectures at the YMCA, where she spoke to gather crowds and showed films of her aerial exploits in the U.S. and abroad.
She had her small apartment, and though Bessie was not flying anymore, she still had an exciting life. She entertained big-name black celebrities like William “Bojangles” Robinson and Josephine Baker. She even mingled with royalty when she hosted Prince Kojo of Dahomey, conversing with him in exquisite French.
No matter what distinguished guests she mingled with, it must have been difficult to wait so long to fly again for our eager Bessie.
But fly again she would, and in 1925, she returned to the cockpit to star in an air exhibition over Texas. The exhibition was held to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19th, 1865, that slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed into law in 1863.
After such a long wait, Bessie surely felt blessed beyond measure to fly again, especially on such an important occasion in her home state of Texas. Her endeavors proved that black women were fearless and capable of miraculous feats of the imagination despite their many social limitations.
Bessie’s Final Flight
By 1926, Bessie Coleman was 34 years old and much closer to achieving her dream of opening a flight school for black Americans. In April, she was in Jacksonville, Florida, waiting for the arrival of her new plane and her mechanic William D. Willis. Willis was also her publicity agent, though he was a decade younger than her.
Willis picked up the plane in Dallas and flew it to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow, but he had serious issues on the trip. He was forced to make three landings during the flight because the plane was in such bad shape. When he explained what happened, Bessie’s friends and loved ones expressed concern about her upcoming flight, but she refused to heed their advice.
Instead, she and Willis planned to take a flight so they could survey the terrain from above. Bessie wanted to perform a parachute jump at the next show and wanted to scout for some good landing spots nearby. Tragically, Bessie did not fasten the seatbelt because she wanted a better view of the ground below.
Ten minutes into the flight when the plane was at 3,500 feet, the biplane accelerated and then slipped into a terrifying nosedive before it took a tailspin and flipped over. Coleman was ejected from the plane and plunged thousands of feet down to her death.
Willis lost control of the plane, and it too crashed to the ground. He died on impact, and the plane exploded in a searing inferno. The plane was badly burned from the explosion, but when it was examined afterward, a loose wrench was found that had somehow jammed the plane’s controls.
After her death, Bessie Coleman was given funeral services in Florida before her body was sent back to Chicago for burial. Most major news outlets did not cover the story, but black press outlets in America reported the sorrowful news far and wide. Ten thousand mourners attended her funeral service in Chicago, which was led by activist Ida B. Wells.
In the many years since Bessie’s death, her life and legacy have not been forgotten, especially by black Americans. She is credited with igniting a spark in generations of black pilots, including the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.
In 1931, black pilots from Chicago started an annual fly-over ceremony above Bessie’s grave, and in 1977, a group of black women pilots founded the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1992, the Chicago City Council asked the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Bessie Coleman postage stamp.
That same year, NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison held Bessie Coleman’s picture during her first mission on the Space Shuttle. Jemison became the first black woman to go to space in September 1992, about 90 years after Bessie’s famous 1922 flight in Chicago.
The First Black Female Pilot, Final Thoughts
Above all else, Bessie Coleman was not afraid to stand out. As the first black female pilot in history, she was not afraid to question the status quo and rise above it. Her determination, bravery, and passion have inspired millions of people to follow their dreams and reach for the seemingly unattainable.
Coleman had a complicated life full of difficulties and struggles, but she never gave up. She never stopped learning and worked hard to achieve her dreams – both great and small.
In an era of segregation, prejudice, and hate, Bessie refused to take no for an answer and successfully carved out her place in American history, taking black excellence to never before seen heights.