Elizabeth Bessie Coleman was a maverick in the sky, and an African American and woman pioneer. She was the first African American to become an airplane pilot, and the first American of any race or gender to hold an international pilot license.
Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children born to Susan and George Coleman. Her mother was African American and her father was one-quarter African-American and three-quarters Cherokee Indian. She was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 and her family settled in Waxahachie, Texas, when she was two years old.
Frustrated by the racial intolerance and barriers, her father went back to Indian Territory in Oklahoma in 1901, but his wife and children elected not to go with him. Bessie Coleman's older brothers moved out on their own, leaving Coleman's mother to raise four daughters on her own.
At a very young age Coleman was recognized as being gifted in math, and at the age of eight she worked as the family bookkeeper. She learned to read by reading Bible scriptures to her family every night. She borrowed books from the library and read about her African-American heroes, which were Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington.
After high school Coleman attended Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma, which was a teachers college. She learned about the Wright Brothers and Harriet Quimby, a woman pilot. Bessie had to leave the school after a year when her funds ran out.
In 1920, her brother John, who was a World War I veteran, began talking about how French women were better because they could fly airplanes. That was exactly what Coleman needed to her because she dreamed of becoming something.
Pursuing this dream was extremely hard. White women had a hard time obtaining flying lessons, so it was extremely hard for a Black woman. Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to attend an aviation school in France, where racism was not as much of a factor. Coleman learned how to speak French and then she was off to France.
Coleman completed the 10-month course in only seven at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy in the Somme. She learned how to perform tailspins, banking and looping the loop. In June of 1921 Coleman received her pilot's license from the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
Coleman was not the first Black woman to receive a license from the FAI, but she was the first American to obtain her pilot's license from the French school, and she was the first licensed Black pilot in the U.S.
In 1922, Coleman gave her first performance at an air show at Curtiss Field, near New York City. The show was sponsored by Robert Abbott and the Chicago Defender.
Coleman was praised in both the white and black newspapers. After performances in Memphis and Chicago, she moved to Southern California to begin an acting career, which was short lived. She broke her contract with the Black movie company when she learned that she was to play an ignorant Black country girl who goes to the big city. She felt that the role was demeaning to women.
While in Los Angeles, Coleman gave lectures at the Los Angeles YMCA, inspiring others to pursue their dreams and revealing her determination to open a Black aviation school.
In 1925 Coleman took her flying act on the road again, touring the country. Her fans called her Queen Bess and Brave Bessie.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman took her final flight. She was on a test flight with her mechanic-pilot, but the plane malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt so she could lean over to check out the field. The plane suddenly accelerated and flipped over. She plummeted 1,500 feet to her death.
Thousands of people mourned Bessie's death. Three funerals were held, one in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Chicago. Over 10,000 people paid their last respects at the memorial service at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago.
In 1929, Lt. William J. Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, the aviation school that she longed to establish, in Los Angeles. In 1990, a road near Chicago's O'Hare Airport was re-named Bessie Coleman Drive. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Department issued the Bessie Coleman stamp.