Bessie Coleman – First Female Pilot to Break Through Racial Barriers

A stamp showing a portrait of Bessie Coleman. Editorial credit: neftali /
A stamp showing a portrait of Bessie Coleman. Editorial credit: neftali /

Bessie Coleman, the world's first female African-American pilot as well as the world's first Native American pilot, was born in Atlanta, Texas. Bessie Coleman overcame many challenges in order to secure her dream of becoming a pilot. During that time, in the 1960s, it was not easy for women to become pilots, let alone women from minority groups. Here are some facts about the life of Bessie Coleman. 

She Was Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892

Bessie was born in Atlanta on January 26, 1892, to a family of thirteen children with Bessie being the fifth-born. Her parents, George Coleman and Susan Coleman, were sharecroppers. Her father was mainly of Cherokee descent while her mother was mainly of African-American descent. At the age of two, Bessie and her family relocated to Waxahachie, Texas, where they resided until Bessie turned 23. While in Waxahachie, she joined school at the age of six where she had to walk four miles to get to class. Throughout her study in all the eight grades, she came out as a top mathematics student. However, her studies were occasionally interrupted every year by cotton harvests.

When she turned 12, she got a scholarship to join the Missionary Baptist Church School. At the age of 18, she used her savings to join the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University or the Langston University as it is now called. Unfortunately, she ran out of money after one term and had to go back home.

Coleman passed away on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida in a plane crash. She passed away while she was testing her Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) aircraft for an airshow in Jacksonville. Ten minutes into the flight, her plane developed complications and she was thrown out at a height of about 2,000 feet. She died instantly upon hitting the ground while her engineer and mechanic who was flying the plane, William D. Wills, also lost his life upon impact.

She Was of Native American and African American Descent

As stated earlier, Bessie was born of parents of Cherokee descent (Native Americans) and an African American. Her father left his family while Bessie was only two years old and went to look for work at present-day Oklahoma, which was then known as the Indian Territory.

She Received Her Pilot License in 1921 at the Age of 31

On June 15, 1921, at the age of 31, Coleman made history by becoming the first African-American woman and the first Native American woman to get a pilot license in a world that was dominated by racism and masculinity. Coleman learned to fly using a Nieuport 82 biplane. Her pilot license came from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. After that, she spent more time training under a French pilot until 1921 when she left for the United States.

She Had to Fly to Travel to France to Become Licensed

When she was finally ready to join a flight school, she could not join American flight schools because they did not admit black people or women. The publisher and founder of the weekly newspaper the Chicago Defender, Robert S. Abbot encouraged her to try her luck abroad. After receiving financial aid from the Defender and a banker who was known as Jesse Binga, she moved to France. Before moving to France, she joined the Berlitz School in Chicago where she learned French. Her move to France happened on November 20, 1920, where she got her license one year later in 1921.

Her Dream Was to Start a Flight School

While in high school, Coleman vowed to herself that her life would amount to something one day. This dream would evolve to become a pilot dream while she was in Chicago in 1916 at the age of 24. The desire to become a pilot was fueled by pilot stories returning home from World War I. After that, she did everything she could until she realized her dream.

She Worked Two jobs to Save Up for Flight School

While in Chicago in 1916, she used to work at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. Her dream and desire to become a pilot also increased in the same year after hearing stories from pilots. In order to reach her financial goals so that she could join a flight school, she decided to take another job at a chili parlor.

She Is Quoted As Saying, "The Air is the Only Place Free From Prejudices"

This quote is probably her most famous quote. She said this after realizing that the black race had no representation at all in aircraft piloting. After this, she made it her mission to risk her life in order for black and women to get representation.

She Risked Her Life to Learn to Fly

One day before she died, her agent and engineer was flying her Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) aircraft to Jacksonville from Dallas. The engineer was known as William D. Wills and was 24 at the time. During his flight to Jacksonville, Wills was forced to land three times due to complications arising from poor maintenance of the plane. Naturally, when Coleman’s family knew about the problems, they advised her not to fly but she risked her life and flew in the plane anyway. Wills was the pilot while she was in the other seat observing the terrain for the airshow that had been scheduled for the next day.

She Turned Down a Racist Role in a Movie

At some point, she was offered a role in a movie called Shadow and Sunshine. She thought it would be great publicity and generate money to star her own flight school. However, she declined the role when she learned that it portrayed black people badly. She did not intend to perpetuate racism in any way.

She Inspired Generations of Marginalized Americans

Coleman made a massive statement by pushing hard and getting her pilot license. She participated in several airshows where she earned the nickname “Queen Bess”. All along, she always wanted to get enough money for her flight school. Even though she never realized that dream, she paved the way for black Americans and all other marginalized people as a role model.


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