Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, sharecroppers. The family lived in a one-room cabin in Atlanta, Texas. When she was two years old, Bessie’s father left the family in search of better opportunities in Oklahoma. Bessie’s mother did her best to support the family until the children were old enough to contribute. When Bessie’s older brothers went to work, she took care of her two younger sisters. She became the family leader, reading to her sisters and mother at night. Bessie promised her mother that she was going to “amount to something.”
Bessie began attending school when she was six and had to walk four miles every day to her segregated one-room school. There she loved to read and had the distinction as an outstanding Math student. The school closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton.
Bessie attended Langston University, known then as Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. She was able to complete one term before she ran out of money. She returned home. At 23 she moved to Chicago where she lived with her brothers. It was when she was working at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist that her interest in aviation was kindled. She heard stories about flying during the war from pilots returning home from World War I. American flight schools did not admit black women and one of the pilots was willing to teach her how to fly.
Determined to earn her pilot license and encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, Bessie went to France after taking a French language course at Berlitz School in Chicago. In France, she learned how to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane and on June 15, 1921 she became the first African American and Native American to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. For the next two months, Bessie took lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris to polish her skills. When she returned to the United States she became a media sensation.
She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. She earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. In 1922 she made her first appearance in an American airshow. It was an event honoring veterans of an all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. She was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”
It was Bessie’s dream to establish a school for young black aviators but she didn’t live to fulfill it. On April 30, 1926, Bessie was killed in an accident while preparing for an airshow. She was only 34 years old.
Bessie Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Lieutenant Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I and pushed for black aviation in his book, journals and through the Bessie Coleman Aero Club which he founded in 1929.
Notes to Women is pleased to honor this remarkable woman who broke down gender and race barriers by daring to dream big. She kept her promise to her mother. She did “amount to something”.
The air is the only place free from prejudice.
I refused to take no for an answer.
You’ve never lived till you’ve flown!
I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.
Sources: Biography; Notable Biographies; Wikipedia; Brainy Quote