This is Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. Bessie was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1893, the 12th child in a family of 13 children. Bessie’s mother was illiterate, but she would get books twice a year from a traveling library so that Bessie could read to her and the rest of family. Bessie had a thirst for learning at an early age and wanted to excel. She completed high school, but could not attend college because of limited funds. Bessie’s mother allowed Bessie to keep the money she earned washing and ironing in order to help Bessie attend Langston Industrial College, now Langston University. However, Bessie could only attend the first semester because she ran out of funds. Because of this, Bessie’s dream to attend college was destroyed, so she decided to go live with her brother in Chicago, Illinois where she attended beauty school and took a job as a manicurist. Around this time, Bessie still an avid reader began to read books on aviation and made a decision to fly by the end of WWI.
Bessie’s journey to become a pilot in the U.S. was fraught with racism and sexism, but she was not going to be deterred or denied. Bessie had what I call BWA (Black Woman Ambition). She fought, struggled, and persevered in the face of racism and sexism, she wasn’t going to stop and wouldn’t stop. Drive, perseverance, and determination is just encoded in Black Women’s DNA and that is why so many of us are determined to defy the odds against us. Bessie’s determination to learn aviation sent her to Robert S. Abbot, editor of the Black newspaper the Chicago Weekly Defender, who after researching informed her that the French had more liberal attitudes toward sex and race. Therefore, Mr. Abbott encouraged Bessie to learn French and go study aviation in France.
Bessie saved her earnings from her job as a manicurist and manager of a chili parlor to make two trips to France. Bessie studied under the top European pilots of the time, one who was the chief pilot of the German Fokker Aircraft Company. In 1922, after her second trip to France, Bessie returned to the U.S. as the first Black Woman pilot in the world receiving her air pilots license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Bessie loved her people and wanted to help other Blacks interested in flying the opportunity to learn, so she decided to open an aviation school for Blacks, but did not have the funds. So, she gave flying exhibitions to raise money to open her school.
That same year in which she received her pilot’s license, Bessie held her first exhibition at Checkerboard Field which today is the Chicago Midway Airport. She also taught classes on aviation in movies, houses, and churches. She held exhibitions in Boston on the spot near the Charles River where Harriet Quimby, America’s first female pilot died. Bessie protested against racism in Texas by refusing to perform an exhibition on a White school ground if they (Whites) did not permit Blacks to use the same entrance as Whites. Although the school allowed Blacks to enter the same entrance as Whites, Blacks sat in a separate section from Whites. Bessie was dubbed by the press as “Queen Bess.”
Bessie suffered her first accident in 1924 while advertising for the Firestone Rubber Company. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1926 around 7:30 p.m., Bessie suffered her final and fatal accident while performing an exhibition for the Jackson, Florida Negro Welfare League. She was flying at 110 MPH, at an altitude of 3,500 feet, at 1,500 foot nose dive. The Chicago Weekly Defender commented on the life and death of the first Black Woman Pilot stating, “Though with the crashing of the plane, life ceased for Bessie Coleman, enough members of her race had been inspired by her courage to carry on in the field of aviation, and whatever is accomplished by members of the race in aviation will stand as a memorial to Miss Coleman.” Bessie’s life, bravery, accomplishments, and courage is still honored by pilots today; every Memorial Day pilots all over fly over and drop flowers on her grave.
Bessie has been an inspiration to both African-American Women/Girls and Men/Boys who aspire to become aviators. Mae C. Jemison, the First African-American Woman to travel in space have cited Bessie as her inspiration and hero. In fact, she took a photo of Bessie with her in orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.
Hats off to Bessie! I salute this AMAZING HER-story making Sista!
Sources: Green, R. L., Dickinson and Associates, Inc., Love, Dorothy, M., Boswell, A., Dobson, S. G., and Lafontant, J. 1984. “A Salute to Historic Black Women.” Empak Enterprises, Inc.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). March 1993. Mae Jemison Biographical Data. Data/Picture. Retrieved from http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/jemison-mc.html