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Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman, First African American Pilot - GPN-2004-00027.jpg
Born (1892-01-26)January 26, 1892
Died April 30, 1926(1926-04-30) (aged 34)
Known for Pioneer aviator

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was the first female African American and Native American pilot ever to hold an international pilot license. She fought discrimination to follow her dream of becoming a pilot. She became a skilled barnstormer (a pilot that travels to perform stunts and give rides) and an aviation educator.

Early Life

Bessie Coleman and her plane (1922)
Bessie Coleman, c.1922

Coleman was born in Texas in 1892. Her mother was African American and her father was Native American. She was the tenth of thirteen children. Her parents were sharecroppers. When Coleman was two, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where Bessie later went to school. She loved reading and excelled in math.

Coleman’s father believed that the family would be treated better if they moved to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Unable to convince his wife to accompany him, Coleman’s father left the family when she was nine. Coleman’s mother worked as a maid. During the cotton harvest, everyone in the family worked in the fields to earn extra money. It was hot, difficult work, and during the harvest, African American children could not go to school. Bessie still managed to finish all eight grades in the local school. Coleman decided that she wanted to go to college, so she saved her money. In about four years, she had enough money to begin college. A year later, she ran out of money.

At the age of 23, Coleman boarded a train and traveled to Chicago, where she moved in with her brothers. Coleman took a class to learn to become a manicurist, and soon found a job at the White Sox Barber Shop in Chicago. There she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I. She took a second job at a chili parlor to save money so that she could become a pilot.

Flying

Coleman-licens
Coleman's aviation license

At the time, aviation (flight) schools in America were not allowing women or black people to attend. Bessie's friend Robert Abbott told her that she could travel to France to fly. She studied the French language after work at night. She got a new job managing a restaurant and saved her money. Robert Abbot and her friends helped her pay for the trip, and in 1920, Coleman sailed to France. She learned to be a pilot at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation. In 1921, Coleman became the first female African American pilot and the first female Native American pilot to hold an international pilot license. She earned it from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Coleman went back to the United States to work as a barnstormer, performing tricks and stunts in her airplane. Barnstormers like Coleman flew planes in loops, figure eights, and other patterns while audiences watched. Coleman performed in the United States and Europe. In the 1920s, much of the United States still practiced racial segregation. Coleman refused to perform at places that did not let African Americans watch equally. For one show in Texas, Coleman refused to perform unless the showrunners let everyone in the audience enter through the same gate instead of making one gate for white people and one for black people. She also taught flying lessons and encouraged women to learn to be pilots.

Coleman wanted to open an aviation school in the United States where black students could learn to be pilots.

Death

In April 1926, Coleman and her mechanic, William Will, were practicing for a performance the next day. Will was piloting the plane when it flipped over and started to dive. Coleman fell out of the plane and was killed. William Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane exploded and burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls.

Coleman is buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.

Honors

BessiesColemanhappy
Bessie Coleman's portrait
  • Atlanta, Texas, has a Regional History Museum that proudly displays a smaller version of Bessie Coleman's yellow bi-plane "Queen Bess." The museum display also includes a uniform and other memorabilia regarding the life and times of Bessie Coleman. Outside the regional history museum is a Texas Historical Marker located at 101 N. East Street in Historic Downtown, Atlanta, Texas. The road to the Hall-Miller Municipal Airport in Atlanta, Texas, is named Bessie Coleman Drive in her honor.
  • A roundabout leading to Nice Airport in the South of France was named after her in March 2016, and there are streets in Poitiers, and the 20th Arrondissement of Paris named after her.
  • Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived as a child, is named in her honor.
  • B. Coleman Aviation, a fixed-base operator based at Gary/Chicago International Airport, is named in her honor.
  • Several Bessie Coleman Scholarship Awards have been established for high school seniors planning careers in aviation.
  • The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Coleman in 1995. The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.
  • In 2012, a bronze plaque with Coleman's likeness was installed on the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies located on the site of the Jacksonville airfield where Coleman's fatal flight took off.
  • Coleman was honored with a toy character in season 5, episode 11a of the children's animated television program Doc McStuffins.
  • She was placed No. 14 on Flying's 2013 list of the "51 Heroes of Aviation."
  • On January 25, 2015, Orlando renamed West Washington Street to recognize the street's most accomplished resident.
  • On January 26, 2017, the 125th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle was posted in her honor.
  • In December 2019, The New York Times featured Coleman in their Overlooked (obituary feature), "Bessie Coleman, Pioneering African-American Aviatrix."

Interesting Facts About Bessie Coleman

  • Bessie was extremely intelligent and fought hard against the assumption that black women were not capable of great things.
  • She applied to flight schools all across the United States but was not accepted at any of them.
  • Robert Abbot, who was the founder and publisher of the country's largest black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, heard about Coleman's determination. He published her story in his paper and raised money for her to make her trip to France.
  • The Caudron Brothers of France were famous like the Wright brothers of the United States.
  • Bessie learned to perform airplane stunts from Anthony Fokker.
  • Bessie was briefly married, but never publicly talked about it.
  • Coleman's nicknames included "Queen Bess" and "Brave Bessie."
  • She survived a plane crash in 1923, in which her plane cut out during a performance.
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