The story of Bessie Coleman is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Faced with poverty, sexism and racism, Coleman paved the way for African Americans and women to take to the skies. Yet almost no one knows her name.
Coleman was born in 1892 in Texas. The tenth of 13 children in her family, she worked with her siblings on the cotton farm. Her parents were sharecroppers, giving a portion of their crop to the landowner as rent.
When she was eight, Coleman’s father left the family for Oklahoma, leaving her mother to work as a housekeeper and cook to provide for her four daughters. Meanwhile, Coleman completed school, excelling in math and reading.
In 1901, Coleman and her mother had saved up enough money to enroll her in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Sadly, she only had enough money to complete one term and dropped out to return home and work as a laundress.
Coleman joined two of her brothers in Chicago in 1915. She worked as a manicurist, but loved watching the planes fly overhead in the Windy City. Her brother John, a World War I veteran who served in France, joked, “I know something that French women do that you’ll never do – fly!”
Little did John know he had sealed her fate: Coleman was going to be a pilot.
Unfortunately, the American pilot system would not allow African Americans or women into their schools (despite the first American female pilot, Harriet Quimby, completing her license in 1911).
Refusing to give up on her dream, Coleman decided to go to France. She left for the Caudron School of Aviation in November 1919.
On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
She returned to the U.S. as a celebrity, but was still unable to fly outside of the entertainment industry. Sadly, this required skills beyond the typical pilot’s license.
Coleman returned to France for stunt training, and returned to the U.S. again for her first air show on September 3, 1922 at Curtiss Field, near New York. She followed this success with shows in Memphis and Chicago.
Coleman returned to Texas in June 1925 and began flying in air shows across the south, refusing to fly unless the show was desegregated.
She flew borrowed planes, parachuted and gave public lectures to raise money for her new dream: to open an African American flying school. It was a dream she would never see to fruition.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman and her mechanic William Will were doing a test flight for a May Day celebration in Jacksonville, Florida. The aircraft malfunctioned, sending her out of the open cockpit to her death. Will, who was flying the aircraft at the time, died in the crash.
William J. Powell completed Coleman’s dream to open the first African American flying school three years later. Powell named it the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in her honor.
In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual flyover of Coleman’s grave to mark the anniversary of her passing, a tradition that continues today.
Though her end was tragic, “Brave Bessie” is still a fantastic role model for women.
Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, said, “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity and beauty.”
In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued the Bessie Coleman stamp, commemorating “her singular accomplishment in becoming the world’s first African American pilot and, by definition, an American legend.”
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12 – 1 pm.