Coleman, the first African American female pilot (of record),
grew up in a cruel world of poverty and discrimination The
year after her birth in Atlanta Texas an African American
man was tortured and then burned to death in nearby Paris
for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl. The incident was
not unusual; lynchings were endemic throughout the South.
African Americans were essentially barred from voting by literacy
tests. They couldn't ride in railway cars with white people,
or use a wide range of public facilities set aside for whites.
When young Bessie first went to school at the age of six,
it was to a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk from her
home. Often there wasn't paper to write on or pencils to write
When Coleman turned 23 she headed to Chicago to live with
two of her older brothers, hoping to make something of herself.
At that time it was soldiers returning from World War I with
wild tales of flying exploits who increased Coleman's interest
in aviation. She was also spurred on by her brother, who taunted
her with claims that French women were superior to African
American women because they could fly.
Very few American women of any race had pilot's licenses in
1918. Those who did were predominantly white and wealthy.
Every flying school that Coleman approached refused to admit
her because she was both black and a woman. When Coleman decided
she wanted to learn to fly, the double stigma of her race
and gender meant that she would have to travel abroad to follow
her dreams. It was also on the advice of Robert Abbott, the
owner of the "Chicago Defender" and one of the first
African American millionaires that Coleman decided to learn
to fly in France.
Coleman learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago
loop, withdrew the savings she had accumulated from her work
as a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor and with
the additional financial support of Abbott and another African
American entrepreneur she set off for Paris from New York
on November 20, 1920. It took Coleman seven months to learn
how to fly. The only non-Caucasian student in her class, she
was taught in a 27-foot biplane that was known to fail frequently,
sometimes in the air. During her training Coleman witnessed
a fellow student die in a plane crash which she described
as a "terrible shock" too her nerves. But the accident
didn't deter her: In June 1921, the Federation Aeronautique
Internationale awarded her an international pilot's license.
When Coleman returned to the U.S. in September 1921, scores
of reporters turned out to meet her. The "Air Service
News" noted that Coleman had become "a full-fledged
aviatrix, the first of her race." She was invited as
a guest of honor to attend the all-black musical "Shuffle
Along." The entire audience, including the several hundred
whites in the orchestra seats, rose to give the first African
American female pilot a standing ovation.
Over the next five years Coleman performed at countless air
shows The first took place on Septemher 3, 1922 in Garden
City, Long Island. The "Chicago Defender" publicized
the event saying the "wonderful little woman" Bessie
Coleman would do "heart thrilling stunts." According
to a reporter from Kansas, as many as 3,000 people, including
local dignitaries, attended the event. Over the following
years, Coleman used her position of prominence to encourage
other African Americans to fly. She also made a point of refusing
to perform at locations that wouldn't admit members of her
Coleman took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926, in
Jacksonville, Florida. Together with a young Texan mechanic
called William Wills, Coleman was preparing for an air show
that was to have taken place the following day. At 3,500 feet
with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got
caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plummeted
toward earth. Coleman, who wasn t wearing a seat-belt, fell
to her death.
About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to the first
African American woman aviator, filing past her coffin in
Chicago's South' Side. Her funeral was attended by several
prominent African Americans and it was presided over by Ida
B. Wells, an outspoken advocate of equal rights. But despite
the massive turnout and the tributes paid to Coleman during
the service, several black reporters believed that the scope
of Coleman's accomplishments had never truly been recognized
during her lifetime. An editorial in the Dallas Express stated
"There is reason to believe that the general public did
not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements
of the race as such."
Coleman has not been forgotten in the decades since her death.
For a number of years starting in 1931, black pilots from
Chicago instituted an annual fly over of her grave. In 1977
a group of African American women pilots established the Bessie
Coleman Aviators Club . And in 1992 a Chicago City council
resolution requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a
Bessie Coleman stamp. The resolution noted that "Bessie
Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions
of young persons with her sense of adventure, her poisitive
attitude, and her determination to succeed." .