Who was Bessie Coleman? (Important Facts)
Bessie Coleman was a pioneer in the aviation industry. She would go down in history as the first indigenous American to receive an international pilot’s license. In 1921, the Texas-born aviator also became the first black American woman to earn a license to fly.
Throughout her career, Coleman showed a very high level of bravery and determination which placed her above most of her peers. Though she was unable to achieve her dream of establishing a pilot school to train other black women, her never-give-up spirit inspired many people in the aviation industry.
But how was she able to achieve this? How did she break the gender and racial barriers to etch her name into the annals of history? The answers to these questions can be found in the article below.
Bessie Coleman’s childhood years
She was born to Susan Coleman and George Coleman as Elizabeth Coleman in 1892. Bessie was raised as the tenth child of her parents’ thirteen kids. She spent the majority of her childhood in Texas where she helped her parents on their cotton farm.
Though she wasn’t born into a rich family, her family did very well to support her education. At the age of six years, she enrolled in a one-classroom school. Determined to complete her elementary education, Coleman wasn’t moved by all the racial discriminations she faced in the school. Six years later, she started her studies at the Missionary Baptist Church School. She was one of the best mathematics students in her class. In 1910, after her graduation, she enrolled at Langston University (then known as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University).
Despite her good academic performance, Coleman was unable to finish her education. She had to drop out of school due to lack of funds. In order to gather some money, she moved to Chicago at age 23 to stay with one of her brothers, Walter.
Working as a beautician
Coleman was jobless when she got to Chicago. In order to survive in the city, she had to find a job which would earn her some respectable income. She was ready to take up any decent job despite having little skills. Fortunately for her, she was hired by the White Sox Barber Shop where she worked as one of their manicurists.
During her time at the salon, she would listen to stories by World War I veterans about the performance of some pilots during the battle. It was at this point that she developed a love for flying. Though her friends tried to discourage her, Bessie was only focused on achieving her dreams.
Beginning of her aviation training
Driven by her love for flying, Coleman decided to take pilot lessons. However, this proved very difficult due to racial and gender discrimination. At that time, blacks were not allowed into any flight schools in the United States. As if that wasn’t enough, her status as a woman made her training very impossible.
Despite these challenges, the former Langston University student was determined to join the aviation industry. She believed that the pursuit of her goals was worth making as many sacrifices as possible, stating “The air is my only desire.”
Struggling to find a training center, she sought help from many well-known people including Robert S. Abbott, publisher and founder of the newspaper known as the Chicago Defender. Abbott advised her to move to France where women and blacks were given opportunities to study how to fly. But before moving, he urged Bessie to gather some money and enroll in a French class. This proved to be a great idea. She gained admission to an aviation training school in France after studying at the Chicago-based Berlitz Language Schools. She started her training in 1920.
After a year of study, she received his flying license from the famous Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. This earned her a place in the history books as the first Native American and African American lady to earn a license to fly.
She didn’t return back to her homeland immediately after obtaining her license. She spent the next two months polishing her skills under a renowned French pilot. In her practice, she mastered parachuting and stunt flying. She attracted lots of media attention when she arrived in the United States in 1921.
Earning a license wasn’t enough for her to make it in America’s aviation industry. She needed her own aircraft to start her barnstorming business which was the only way civilian pilots in the country were able to earn money.
Fresh in the industry, Bessie was not financially strong to purchase her own plane. In order to raise money, she took up many jobs including a restaurant worker. After consulting some friends, she moved to Florida to establish a beauty shop. In 1922, she returned to Europe to continue with her training. After two months, she went to the Netherlands where she met the renowned aircraft designer Anthony Fokker.
Later that year, she returned home to start her barnstorming career. Known by the moniker “Queen Bess”, the Texas-born pilot performed in her first airshow in September 1922 at an event to honor black members of the 369th Infantry Regiment who fought in the First World War. For five years, she entertained the people of America. She performed at many shows and showcased lots of flying moves which made her one of the fans’ favorites.
Speaking out against racism
With her new found celebrity status, Coleman became very vocal in the fight against racism. According to historical accounts, she refused to perform at centers where racial segregation was observed. She was known for her saying that “Blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I have faced” and “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” It was for this reason that she dreamt of opening a training school to teach people of her race how to fly a plane.
She also campaigned for black Americans to be accepted into pilot training school. It is also said that she rejected a movie role in which she was supposed to appear in a tattered cloth in her first scene.
The tragic end of Bessie Coleman
Coleman’s popularity had grown to the extent that she was able to attract lots of audiences to her shows. In 1926, she was scheduled to perform a parachuting stunt at an event in Florida. In order to get used to the terrain, she decided to fly over the venue to observe the place.
Seated in her Curtiss JN-4 aircraft which was piloted by her publicity agent, William D. Wills, Coleman went over 3,000 feet above the ground. Few minutes into their flight, the aircraft started spinning and its altitude began to decrease. When they got to about 2,000 feet above the ground, Coleman fell from the plane and died instantly. Wills also died immediately after crashing the plane.
It is believed that the two pilots were aware of the state of the aircraft. According to reports, Coleman and her agent were advised not to use the plane due to its bad state. After a series of investigations, it was revealed that the accident was caused by a wrench which was used to repair the engine. The report further explained that the control panel was affected by the poor engine.
Remembering Bessie Coleman
A trailblazer in the aviation industry, Coleman has been honored in many ways. In 1995, the United States Postal Service used a picture of the famous pilot on their 32-cent stamp. Six years later, she became a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In 2006, she was named into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She has also been elected into San Diego Air & Space Museum’s International Air & Space Hall of Fame. In addition to that, roads in places like Florida, California, and Chicago have been named in her honor. Technology company Google introduced a Doodle to celebrate her 125th birthday in 2017.
Some interesting facts about Bessie Coleman
- She was involved in a plane crash in 1923 in which she broke her ribs and leg.
- Mattel Inc., an American toy manufacturing firm, introduced a Barbie doll of Coleman during their 2023 “Inspiring Women” program.
- A biography of Bessie Coleman, titled “Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator”, was published in 2015 by American author Doris L. Rich.