Born in 1892 in a poor black community in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was not encouraged to follow her dreams. At the time, colored*** children were not expected to finish school, let alone have the ambition to fly. But nothing could stop Bessie. She worked hard and became the first woman of color to obtain an international flying license. She would go on to become famous nationally for her feats in an airplane as well as her fierce determination and integrity.
Bessie had to work to have the money to go to school. When her funds ran out she moved to Chicago to join her brothers in 1915. Her brother fought in WWI and returned home with stories of French female pilots. Bessie was intrigued and tried to enroll in pilot school. No one would take a black woman as a student.
She saved her money and took French classes. With the help of Robert Abbott, publisher of the most famous African-American newspaper in the United States, Bessie went to France. She was accepted at one of the country’s top flight schools. Though she was the only black woman in her class, she was determined to succeed.
Bessie knew that flying was dangerous. She saw planes crash, but that didn’t stop her. On June 15, 1921, Bessie received her international pilot’s license. She flew in air shows all over Europe. Then Bessie returned to the United States.
She was sure she could find work as a pilot with her prestigious license but few people were willing to hire black females. Bessie went back to Europe for more training. She learned how to do stunt flying and daredevil feats that would become known as ‘barnstorming’. She became famous for her aerial maneuvers – multiple loops, spins, barrel rolls and dives across the sky. By the time Bessie returned to the United States in 1922 she was quite famous.
Bessie had her first air show in America on Labor Day, 1922. The following year she was hurt badly in a crash. The indomitable “Queen Bess” was flying again three months later. Also nicknamed ‘Brave Bess’, she continued to cause a sensation with her flying for the next five years.
Bessie wanted to do more than just amaze people with her flying ability. She wanted her life to show the world what women of color could do. Bessie traveled around the country lecturing audiences in churches, theaters and schools about flying. She showed films of her work to encourage colored people to follow their dreams.
Using her popularity as leverage, Bessie refused to appear in places where there was segregation. She insisted for example, that white and colored be allowed to use the same entrances to the shows. She insisted that the show promoters treat everyone the same. Bessie also wanted to open a flight school for colored people.
Bessie’s story ended tragically and much too soon. In 1926, only 34 years of age, Bessie and another pilot, William D. Wills were flying to Orlando, Florida to attend an air show when Williams lost control of the plane. Bessie had unbuckled her belt so she could scout the area better and she fell to her death from 3500 feet in the air. Wills was also killed as the plane crashed.
Over 10,000 people came to pay their respects at Bessie’s funeral in Chicago. Black pilots from the Chicago area instituted an annual fly over of her grave on the anniversary of her death, April 30. This year’s flyover, 2017, will be the 38th.
In 1929 William J. Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. In 1977 the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was founded. Bessie is remembered as a woman who persevered against great odds to fulfill her dream. She is a great role model for young people to follow their dreams.
***At the time, black people were referred to as ‘colored’. The term ‘African-American’ did not come into being until a few decades later.
You can see some wonderful pictures of Bessie on the following YouTube sites:
1.Bessie Coleman on youtube.com
2. Bessie Coleman – An American Hero ( many great pictures! )
The YouTube site below has some video of that period of time showing some aerial stunts:
Bessie Coleman – Smithsonian Channel VIDEO – “The First Female African American Pilot”
A great little book, written for young readers is:
Bessie Coleman: Trailblazing Pilot, from Scholastic, Inc., Rookie Biographies Series, 2016. Written by Carol Alexander.