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The first African-American woman and the first Native American civil pilot in the US.
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. Her father was of Cherokee descent, and her mother was African-American. When she was 2 years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where her parents worked as sharecroppers. At the age of 6, she started to attend segregated, one-room school, walking 4 miles every day. At the age of 9, her father left home, and in addition to attending school, she helped to support the family by harvesting cotton and washing laundry. At 12, Coleman was granted a scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church School, which later allowed her to enroll in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. After a semester, her money ran out, and she had to leave and return home.
At the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. She attended Burnham School of Beauty Culture and worked as a manicurist. Her brothers, who served in WW1, told stories from their France experiences, where women fly airplanes. Inspired by their stories, Coleman took a second job and received sponsorship from the newspaper editor Robert S. Abbott and the banker Jesse Binga, to have enough money for aviation classes. No school in the US would receive her application, both because of her race and gender, so she learned French and moved to Paris, where she studied at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation. After seven months, 29 years old Coleman became the first African-American woman and first Native- American to earn a pilot’s license as well as the first black person and first Native-America to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
On her return to the US, Coleman received media attention but realized that she would have to become a stunt flier to earn money. Once again, she did not find any school to accept her, so she traveled to Europe, learning stunts flying and parachuting in France, the Netherland, and Germany. When she came back to the US, her popularity grew, and she became known as “Queen Bess.” She flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes, performing daredevil maneuvers such as loops, eights figures, and near-ground dips. Her goal was to encourage people to pursue their dreams, while her dream was to own a plane and open a flight school for African-Americans. She gave speeches throughout the country, presenting films of her tricks, and promoting aviation within the community. She refused to speak or to perform in segregated events. During a speaking tour in Orlando, Florida, she met community activists Rev. Hezakiah and Viola Hill, who invited her to live with them. She moved in and opened a beauty shop to earn enough money to buy a plane.
On April 30th, 1926, Coleman took a test flight with her mechanic, William Wills. She sat in the passenger seat while he was piloting the plane. Ten minutes into the flight, it went into an unexpected dive and a spin at 3,000 feet. Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown out of the plane and died immediately when hitting the ground. The plane crashed right next to her. More than 10,000 mourners attended her funeral ceremonies, led by Ida B. Wells. Although she did not achieve her dream to establish her aviation school, her pioneering achievements were the inspiration for a generation of African-Americans to become pilots.
“The air is the only place free from prejudice”
“The air is the only place free from prejudice”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She was the tenth of thirteen children; only nine survived to adulthood.
- On February 22nd, 1923, her plane stalled and crashed, and she broke a leg and three ribs.
- She refused an offer to participate in a film when realizing she will portray a black woman’s derogatory image.
- Her nicknames were “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess.”
- It is a tradition for African-American aviators to drop flowers during flyovers of her grave at Lincoln Cemetery.
- Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, carried Bessie Coleman’s picture on her first mission in the Space Shuttle.
- Several airport roads in the US and abroad are named after her. Including O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Tampa International Airport in Florida, and Frankfurt International Airport in Germany.
- The Chicago Cultural Center placed a plaque in her memory at her former home.
- Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill, Texas, is named in her honor.
- Bessie Coleman Boulevard, in her childhood town of Waxahachie, Texas, is named in her honor.
- The Bessie Coleman Aviators Club for African-American women pilots is named in her honor.
More About Her Legacy
* The U.S. Postal Service issued a “Bessie Coleman” (1995)
* Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (2001)
* Inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (2006)
* Inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame (2014)
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One of Her Landmarks
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