The First Female African-American Pilot
Bessie Coleman’s Early Life
Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children, with parents who were both illiterate sharecroppers. By the time she reached childhood, Coleman’s father left his family to go to Oklahoma for better work opportunities. Her mother and brothers eventually left for better work as well, leaving Bessie to care for her younger siblings.
At 23 years old, she moved to Chicago with her brother and became a manicurist. As this was around the time WWI ended, her interest in aviation began to flourish as she intently listened to WWI stories on the radio. By 1920, she knew what she wanted out of life: to become a pilot.
Becoming A Pilot
After attempting to find literally anyone who could teach her the ways of aviation, she realized no one was willing to teach a black person, much less a black female, how to fly. Her sponsor, Robert Abbott, who is also a publisher for the nation’s largest African American Weekly, suggested she attend a school France, because they do not discriminate and are the world leaders in aviation. By 1921, Coleman received her international piloting license from the best school in France. In 1922, she was the first to stage a public flight in the U.S.
She already completed her mission of becoming a pilot, but Coleman wanted more. She wanted to introduce colored people into the world of aviation, and aviation into the world of colored people. She paved the way of integrating something so segregated for so long. In doing so, she appeared before audiences in schools, churches, and theaters, talking about her adventures and trying to spark an interest in others. Weekly papers even nicknamed her “Queen Bess”.
Coleman also performed in what’s called barnstorming, which is putting on shows with her plane, as stunt pilots would do death-defying tricks in the air. However, she insisted on only performing if the crowd was not segregated and everyone was allowed to enter through the same gates. Altogether, these shows gave her enough fame and money to buy another plane, and even open an aviation school.
Traveling on plane from Orlando to Jacksonville, on April 30th, 1926, Coleman sat in the cockpit leaning over the plane to see the area in which she would perform the next day. With an altitude of 1,000 feet, the plane dove headfirst, tossing her out. Both her pilot and herself were killed instantly. She had three memorials -- in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago, in which thousands of people attended.
In her 34 years, she accomplished more than anyone has in that short of a lifetime. She ultimately was able to pave the road to integration, proving that African-American women are able to succeed despite society’s attempts to suppress them.
If you want to learn more about Bessie Coleman, check out our learning deck!
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