Bessie Coleman – Notable Women in History Series


Defying the odds of gender and race expectations of her time, Bessie Coleman became the first civilian-licensed African-American pilot in the world. This women’s history month, we celebrate the determination that drove her to pursue and achieve her dream.
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. Her parents, Susan and George, were sharecroppers. Bessie completed all eight grades of her one-room school, but yearned for more. After saving her money, she enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, she was only able to afford one semester before running out of money, and returning home.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Bessie went to stay with her brother in Chicago. Both of her brothers had served in France during WWI and teased her saying French women had something she didn’t, they could fly! Bessie had recently become enamored with the idea of flying after encounters with pilots discussing their flying exploits on their return from the war.
Bolstered with savings from her work as a beautician, and the encouragement of an acquaintance with Robert Abbot, publisher of the Chicago Defender, Coleman set off to France to become a pilot. Within seven months, she had learned to fly a 27-foot bi-plane. In June 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot's license.

At the age of 29, Coleman returned to the U.S. to begin her career in aviation. Realizing she needed publicity to attract paying audiences, she began exhibition flying and occasional parachute jumping in borrowed planes. Notably, Bessie refused to perform unless the audiences were desegregated and everyone attending entered through the same gate.
After years of saving, she finally purchased her own plane in 1926 in Dallas and arranged to have it flown to Jacksonville. On the evening of April 30, 1926, Bessie flew her last flight. She and her mechanic took it for a test flight, but unfortunately the plane malfunctioned and Bessie, sans seatbelt, fell from the cockpit to her death. She was just 34 years old.
Thousands attended her memorial service in Orlando, while many thousands more paid their respects in Chicago. Unfortunately, she didn’t receive the recognition she deserved until after her death. First, with the establishment of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929. Then in 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual flyover at Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery in her honor. In 1977, women pilots in Chicago established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. Finally in 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issues a “Bessie Coleman” stamp commemorating “her singular accomplishment in becoming the world’s first African-American pilot and, by definition, an American legend.”
This women’s history month, we salute Bessie Coleman not only for following her dream, but for standing up to those who said she couldn’t do something because of her race or gender, and proving that yes, in fact, she could.  

For more sources discussing Bessie Coleman and her achievements, consider these texts: