Bessie Coleman

BESSIE COLEMAN – 1893-1926

In 1922, Bessie Coleman received her air pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France, to become the first Black woman pilot. She was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1893, and was the 12th of 13 children. Although her mother could not read or write, she managed to obtain books from a travelling library wagon twice a year, so that Bessie could read to the family.

Bessie was born with a driving force to learn and to better her position. She finished high school and wanted to go to college, but her mother could not afford to send her. Instead, Mrs Coleman let Bessie keep her earnings from washing and ironing to attend Langston Industrial College, which is now Langston University. Bessie’s money lasted only one semester. Afterwards, she went to live with an older brother in Chicago, Illinois where she attended beauty school and worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Although her dreams of college had been shattered, she was still a keen reader and took an avid interest in aviation, devouring everything she could find. By the time World War I was over, she had made a firm decision to learn to fly.

Bessie faced blatant prejudice in her effort to obtain flying instruction in the United States due to her sex and race. However, she met her obstacles head on and persisted in her effort. She went to Robert S Abbot, editor and publisher of the Chicago Weekly Defender, for help and after an extensive investigation, he informed her that the French were more liberal in their attitudes toward women and people of colour and encouraged her to study French and go to France.

With the money earned from her manicurist’s job and from a chilli parlour she managed, she made two trips to Europe. She studied under the Best European flyers, including the chief pilot for Germany’s Fokker Aircraft Company. When she returned from Europe for the second time in 1922, she returned as the only Black female pilot in the entire world. In Bessie’s mind, “what use is an achievement if it cannot be shared?” Her primary goal was to open a flying school to teach other Blacks. Since money was a problem, she began giving flying exhibitions to raise funds to open her school.

Her first exhibition in 1922, was at Checkerboard Field (now Chicago’s Midway Airport). Between exhibitions, she lectured on aviation in churches and movie houses. In Boston, she did loops over the spot on the Charles River where Harriet Quimby (America’s first woman pilot) had been killed. Once, in her home state, she refused to put on an exhibition at a White school ground unless Blacks were permitted to use the same entrance. They were, but they were seated separately inside. Her first accident occurred in 1924, in California while doing advertising for the Firestone Rubber Company.

On April 30, 1926, at the threshold of opening a school, Bessie suffered a fatal accident. She had been asked to give an exhibition by the Jacksonville, Florida Negro Welfare League. At 7.30 pm, flying at 110 mph at an altitude of 3,500 feet, Bessie put her plane into a 1,500 foot nose dive and never came out.

The Chicago Weekly Defender on the 10th Anniversary of her death, eloquently commented: “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 the field of aviation, and whatever is accomplished by members of the race in aviation will stand as a memorial to Miss Coleman.”

It is said that every year on Memorial Day, pilots fly over Bessie Coleman’s grave and drop flowers in her honour.