Pilots of various types of aircraft are often thought of as men. The idea of a Black American woman as a pilot of the skies rarely if ever crosses many people’s minds, but, there was one woman who stood head and shoulders above the pilots of her time, and that woman was the wonderful Bessie Coleman.
Her name is rarely ever said in the same breath as that of Amelia Earhart, but, Ms. Coleman was able to paint her name in the sky by being the only Black pilot in the world in 1921 and one year later, she became the first Black woman pilot to fly over American soil, and she earned her pilot licence two years before Amelia Earhart.
Here is her story.
BESSIE COLEMAN (B. January 20, 1896 – d. April 30, 1926), first licensed Black American woman aviator, barnstormer, parachutist, and activist.
Born in Atlanta, Texas, Elizabeth Coleman was the twelfth of thirteen children. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was a Black American. Her father, George Coleman, was three-quarters Choctaw Indian and one-quarter Black. While Bessie was still a toddler, the Coleman family moved t o Waxahachie, Texas, an agricultural and trade center that produced cotton, grain, and cattle. The town was about thirty miles south of Dallas, Texas and was recognized as the cotton capital of the West. There, the Coleman family made a living from picking cotton. George Coleman built a three-room house on a quarter acre of land, but by the time Bessie was seven years old, he had returned to Choctaw country in Oklahoma. Susan Coleman continued to raise nine surviving children alone as she also continued to harvest in the fields, pick cotton, and do domestic work to make ends meet. When the children became old enough, usually about age eight, they too went to work in the cotton fields to supplement the Coleman family income. Recognizing Bessie’s excellent mathematical skills, Susan Coleman exempted her daughter from working in the cotton fields and assigned her the family bookkeeping responsibilities.
The Colemans were religious Baptists, and each child was expected to demonstrate literacy skills by reading aloud from the Bible every evening. When Bessie was old enough to take in laundry, her mother permitted her to save her earnings for her college education. She was enrolled in the elementary division of the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. The school was popularly known as Langston and was named for the great-uncle of poet Langston Hughes. After graduating from high school, Bessie attended the teachers college for one year until her finances were depleted.
Ms. Coleman, like so many Black Americans of the period, migrated to Chicago, Illinois, where two of her brothers lived, sometime between 1915 and 1917. Just as she avoided the backbreaking work of cotton picking fields in Texas, she also eschewed conventional women’s labor in Chicago; she sought neither domestic nor factory work, the prevalent occupations of Black American women migrants of the day. She took manicuring classes at the Burnham’s School of Beauty Culture and obtained a job as a manicurist in the White Sox barber Shop. In the masculine environment of her workplace , Ms. Coleman listened to the men who had returned from World War I, including her brother Johnny, discuss the war and the fledgling field of aviation. Ms. Coleman developed an intense interest in aviation, and, aware that there were no Black aviators, she felt that “the Race needed to be represented along this most important line.” She quit her job as a manicurist, and focused her attention on becoming an aviator. “I thought it was my duty,” she said, “to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of our Race.”
Because Ms. Coleman was a Black American woman, her initial pursuit of a formal education in aviation met with rejection from the administration of newly established aviation schools in the United States. These schools were conforming to Jim Crow laws that stipulated separation between the races. Upon advice from Robert S. Abbott, the founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, and with financial support from him and Jesse Binga, the founder and president of the Binga State bank—both Black American philanthropists—in 1920, Ms. Coleman temporarily eluded this discrimination by registering in an aviation school located in France. She specialized in parachuting and stunt flying and, upon completion of her program of study, she received the first international pilot’s licence granted to an American aviator from the Fédération Aéronautique International, on June 15, 1921. Armed with a licence that allowed her to fly in any part of the world, she returned to the United States as a barnstormer.
Bessie Coleman’s aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
After Ms. Coleman received recognition as a top-flight barnstormer from predominantly White audiences and press in the northern and Midwestern regional air shows, she aimed her performances in the South at primarily Black American audiences. Many of her southern appearances were at circuses, carnivals, and county fairs on the Theatre Owners and Booking Association circuit, which also included black theaters where documentary film footage of Ms. Coleman’s achievements in Europe were shown between acts. She lectured at Black American schools, churches, and recreation facilities in an attempte to encourage Black Americans to become involved in aviation and to raise money to launch an aviation training school for Black Americans.
“MOORE TEXAS” CARTOON BY Roger T. Moore, February 21, 2008. (Copyright).
Although Ms. Coleman needed large sums of money to establish her avaiation school, she would not compromise her integrity. She refused to perform in her childhood town at the Waxahachie airport until the authorities desegregated the audience.
Bessie Coleman, ca. 1922.
In March 1926, she turned down the Orlando Chamber of Commerce when she learned that Black Americans would be excluded from her performance. Although the White businessmen relented, Ms. Coleman did not agree to perform until “the Jim Crow order had been revoked and aviators had been sent up to drop placards letting the members of our Race know they could come onto the field.”
Shortly after the Orlando engagement, Ms. Coleman was hired by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida, to perform at their annual First of May Field Day. Ms. Coleman, however, had trouble locating an airplane in Florida because local dealers would not sell, rent, or lend an airplane to a Black American woman. She then summoned William D. Wills, her White mechanic in Dallas, Texas, to fly a plane to her in Jacksonville for the performance. During a dress rehearsal, Ms. Coleman was catapulted out of the airplane at about two thousand feet when the plane somersaulted in several revolutions; she was not wearing a seatbealt or a parachute. Every bone in her body was crushed by the impact.
She was only 34 years old.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow but had to make three forced landings along the way due to the plane’s being so poorly maintained and worn out. Upon learning this, Coleman’s friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. She had not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About ten minutes into the flight, the plane unexpectedly went into a dive, then spun around. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground. William Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane 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 slid into the gearbox and jammed it. Bessie was 34 years old.
Despite her untimely death, Ms. Coleman influenced other Black Americans to pursue aviation as a profession. Several generations of Black American pilots still honor her during an annual memorial service by flying over her gravesite in the Chicago suburb of Blue island and dropping a wreath. In Atchison, Kansas—Amelia Earhart’s birthplace and location of the International Forest of Friendship, which honors pilots from around the world—Ms. Coleman’s achievements are commemorated by a plaque bearing her name. Numerous biographies of Ms. Bessie Coleman have been published for school-age readers.
Elizabeth Hadley Freydburg, Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird, Garland, 1994.
Von Hardesty and Dominick Pisano, Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation. Washington, D.C: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian, 1983.
A public library in Chicago was named in Coleman’s honor, as are roads at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California, Tampa international airport in Florida, and at Frankfurt International Airport. A memorial plaque has been placed by the Chicago Cultural Center at the location of her former home, 41st and King Drive in Chicago, and by custom black aviators drop flowers during flyovers of her grave at Lincoln Cemetery.
A new roundabout leading to Nice Airport in the South of France has just been named after her. March, 2016
Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill in Texas is named for 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/Cicago International Airport is named in her honor.
Several Bessie Coleman Scholarship Awards have been established for high school seniors planning on 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 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, arguably aviation’s most prestigious honor.
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. She was placed at No. 14 on Flying Magazine‘s 2013 list of the “51 Heroes of Aviation”.
Bessie Coleman’s portrait.