Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first African-American to have an international pilot’s license. She was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to parents George and Susan Coleman.
Bessie Coleman once worked as a laundress to save money so she could go to Langston University in Oklahoma but left school after a year when she ran out of money. She again worked as a laundress in 1915 when she moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brother. After a few months, she landed a job as a manicurist; and in 1920, she was resolved to being a pilot.
Due to racial discrimination during the 1920s, Bessie Coleman was denied entrance in U.S. flight schools. She enrolled herself to learn the French language and moved to France to learn to fly through her sponsor, Robert Abbott (1868-1940), publisher of the nation’s largest African-American weekly, the Chicago Defender. After only seven months, she earned her license in France’s prestigious flight school, Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation.
Bessie Coleman would have wanted to open a flight school for African-Americans upon coming back to the United States, but she did stunt flying, parachuting, barnstorming, and aerial tricks. She had her first public flight by an African-American woman in 1922.
She earned her nickname, “Brave Bessie,” from her daredevil stunts that left the audience in awe.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman died during a show’s test flight for the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida, when the plane did not nosedive but did a somersault. The result was that Coleman was accidentally dropped from the plane.
William D. Wills piloted the plane when Bessie Coleman died. Bessie was in the other cockpit trying to survey the area where she was to fly and jump in a parachute on a show scheduled May 1, 1926. She had not put her seatbelt on as she was trying to lean over the plane to pick the best sites. When the plane accidentally flipped over, she was thrown out from an altitude of 1,000 feet. Wills and the plane crashed soon after. Both were killed in the accident.
An estimated 10,000 mourners paid their respects at Bessie Coleman’s funeral, and it was attended by several prominent African-Americans. Her funeral was presided over by equal rights advocate, Ida B. Wells. However, the African-American media believed that Coleman’s accomplishments had never been truly recognized in her lifetime.
After the funeral service in Jacksonville, Coleman’s body was returned to Chicago, which she considered her home, and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery.
Even after her death, Bessie Coleman remained an inspiration to many. Though she never realized her dream to open an aviation school for her fellow African-Americans, after her death, the Bessie Coleman Aero groups were organized. On May 1, 1931, the first all-African-American air show was organized, and 15,000 came to watch the show.
Several honors were given to Bessie Coleman in the many years after she died. In 1977, female African-Americans organized the Bessie Coleman Aviator Club. In 1990, a street in Chicago was renamed to bear her name. Chicago declared May 2, 1992, asBessie Coleman Day; and in 1995, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in her honor.
Bessie Coleman was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in Waxahachie. In 1901, Bessie’s father left them and returned to the “Indian Territory.” In early 1917, Bessie married Claud Glenn; but she never publicly acknowledged the marriage, and both soon separated.