The newspapers called her a “wonderful little woman,” but she was much more. She was the first American Black female pilot, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and an inspiration to millions, especially women and people of color in aviation, all because she did what no one thought she could do and, in fact, repeatedly told her so.
Bessie Coleman was born on Jan. 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, in the Jim Crow South. Coleman first attended school in a one-room schoolhouse that often lacked even paper and pencils. Amid those circumstances, she quickly proved her mathematical aptitude, completing all eight grades in that tiny shack while trying to save enough money to enroll in Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, today known as Langston University. Unfortunately, Coleman was forced to drop out due to lack of funds after only one term.
At the age of 23, Coleman moved in with her brother in Chicago, a city she saw as a place where she could “amount to something.” She began working as a manicurist. Her brothers had served in France during World War I, and, as brothers do, they began teasing her that French women had opportunities she would never have. Her brother John told her, “I know something that French women do that you’ll never do—fly!” Sibling rivalry can be a powerful motivator, and Coleman quickly set out to prove her brother wrong.
But the path wasn’t an easy one. Coleman was turned down by flight school after flight school, both because of her gender and her race. Finally, after running out of options, she took the advice and patronage of Chicago publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a leader in Chicago’s Black community of the day and founder of the influential newspaper The Chicago Defender. He helped her travel to France, where she was accepted at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation.
Her training wasn’t easy, and during her time in France, she witnessed an accident that killed another student. Coleman remembered, “It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them. I kept going.” After seven months of flight training in the Nieuport Type 82, Coleman became the first Black American female pilot, earning her International Pilot’s License.
Returning home, she was greeted by reporters and heralded as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.” On Sept. 3, 1922, Coleman piloted the first public flight by a Black American woman. She began barnstorming the country, performing “breathtaking” stunts. Coleman returned to her Texas hometown in 1925 for an airshow, but upon finding out that the audience was to be segregated, she refused to perform until the crowd was integrated. She continued to refuse to perform at any segregated airshow thereafter.
She also launched a series of lectures in Florida and Georgia to encourage Black Americans’ interest in aviation. And Bessie had a dream of opening her own flight school to train a new generation of aviators who, like her, never had a chance to learn to fly.
This was not to be. On April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman went on a flight with a mechanic in a Curtiss Jenny, testing the plane for an airshow the following day. Ten minutes into the flight, a wrench became lodged in the plane’s elevator, throwing it into a dive and subsequent spin. Coleman, who wasn’t wearing a parachute or a seatbelt, was thrown from the airplane at 2,000 feet and died instantly.
Ten thousand mourners attended the 34-year-old’s funeral in Chicago, the city where her dreams of flight were initially denied.
Though she died before opening her own flight school, others took up the mantle, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded in Los Angeles in 1929. Coleman has been credited by many pilots as their inspiration to dare to fly. NASA Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison carried a picture of Coleman with her when Jemison became the first Black American woman in space. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Bessie Coleman” stamp to honor “her singular accomplishment” in becoming the world’s first female Black American pilot and, in time, an American legend. Though her life was cut short, Coleman far surpassed her simple dream “to amount to something.”