Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to obtain an international pilot’s license in 1921. After studying French, she enrolled in the prestigious Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudron in Northern France. No school in America would educate a black student.
Her brother John, who served in France during World War I, inspired her to fly after telling her stories about Frenchwomen flyers. Coleman did acrobatics in air shows across the country and offered motivational speeches to audiences that included many youngsters. She believed in freedom in the skies and would not participate in an air show with a segregated audience.
On April 30, 1926, she was killed in an airplane piloted by her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, when he flew her over the field of the following day’s air show in Jacksonville, Florida, where she was scheduled to be the star. Coleman, 34, had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) airplane in Dallas, which Willis flew to Jacksonville in preparation for the exhibition.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children to George and Susan Coleman. The family relocated to Waxahachie, Texas, where they worked as sharecroppers. When Bessie demonstrated an aptitude for math, her mother encouraged her to continue her education.
Coleman enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now known as Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma, when he was 18 years old. She stayed for their one term. She moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1916, when she was 23, to live with her brother Walter, a Pullman porter. Coleman worked as a manicurist in the Chicago White Sox barbershop.
Coleman was inspired to fly after hearing accounts from returning World War I pilots, but when she tried to enroll in aviation schools, she was turned down because she was black and a woman. When no black American aviator would train her, Coleman gained encouragement and financial backing from Chicago Defender publisher Robert Abbott and black Chicago banker Jesse Binga. Abbott pushed her to study in another country.
Coleman took a French language course in Chicago before traveling to Paris on November 20, 1920, to pursue pilot instruction. On June 15, 1921, she completed her training and earned her license. Coleman completed her training in France before returning to the United States in September 1921, when she became a media phenomenon.
Coleman returned from Paris and worked as a restaurant manager to raise money for an airplane. Friends such as Edwin Beeman of the chewing gum family and Robert S. Abbott, editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, assisted her in this attempt. Coleman relocated to Orlando, Florida, where she operated a beauty salon to assist fund the purchase of her own jet.
Coleman eventually returned to Europe in 1922, believing she could make more money as a barnstorming stunt flier. She studied in France before traveling to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s premier aircraft designers.
She finally proceeded to Germany and visited the Fokker Corporation, where she was trained by one of the company’s main pilots. She returned to the United States as “Queen Bess” and began her new profession, making her first performance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, during a ceremony honoring members of World War I’s all-black 369th Infantry Regiment.
Her aim of opening a flying school was never accomplished, but black aviators organized a network of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs some years after her death. The largest of these was organized in Los Angeles by pilot William J. Powell. A corridor near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was named for her in 1990, and the US Postal Service produced the Bessie Coleman Stamp five years later. In 2000, she was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.