Bessie Coleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African American descent[1] and the first person of African American descent to hold an international pilot license.[2][3]

Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George and Susan Coleman. Coleman began school at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her all-black, one-room school. Despite sometimes lacking such materials as chalk and pencils, Coleman was an excellent student. She loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. Coleman completed all eight grades of her one-room school. When she turned eighteen, Coleman took all of her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She completed only one term before she ran out of money and was forced to return home. Coleman knew there was no future for her in her home town, so she went to live with two of her brothers in Chicago while she looked for a job.

There, she heard tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. They told stories about flying in the war, and Coleman started to fantasize about being a pilot. Her brother used to tease her by commenting that French women were better than African-American women because French women were pilots already. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman took French language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920.

On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but the first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. On April 30, 1926, Coleman, was in Jacksonville, Florida. She recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas, Texas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow. About ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a dive; instead it spun. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 500 ft (150 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground. She was only thirty-four.

Bessie Coleman