A woman who made her high flying dreams come true, Bessie Coleman was the first woman of African American descent and the first woman of Native American descent to obtain her pilot’s license, and the first black person of either sex to earn an international pilot’s license
Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892, Bessie was one of thirteen children—and one of nine who survived. Her father was Cherokee Indian and her mother African American. The family made their living sharecropping in Waxahachie, Texas.
At 22 years old, Bessie moved to Chicago where she worked in a barber shop as a manicurist. Many of the shop’s clientele were pilots who had returned from World War I with stories to tell of their delights and terrors in the sky. It was then, Bessie decided she wanted to become a pilot—but flight schools did not accept women or African Americans at the time.
Robert S. Abbot, an African American lawyer and newspaperman published an ad highlighting Bessie’s dreams of aviation, and through that, she received a sponsorship from Jesse Binga, founder of the first privately owned African American bank in Chicago. After taking French lessons, Bessie took her dreams to Paris where she learned to fly a Nieuport 564 biplane.
In 1921, Bessie made history by obtaining her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique International. Emboldened by her achievement, Bessie was determined to excel at her passion and spent the next year honing her skills, and then came back to the US to launch her career in exhibition flying.
She made her first appearance at an airshow in New York in 1922. Christened “Queen Bess,” Bessie became a popular draw for the next five years and was known for her difficult and sometimes dangerous stunts. In 1923 at an airshow in Los Angeles, she crashed her plane and broke three ribs and her leg.
Determined to use her success to help combat racism, Bessie spoke to audiences across the nation about the pursuit of aviation for African Americans. She is quoted as saying, “The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…”
And risk her life, she did.
In 1926 during a practice flight with her mechanic, William D. Wills, Bessie’s plane took a sudden and unexpected dive. Not wearing her seat belt, Bessie was thrown from the cockpit at a staggering 2,000 feet and died on impact. Unable to gain control of the plane, Wills perished in a burst of flames as the plane hit the ground.
Bessie’s life was cut short at age 34, but her story serves to inspire all of us, still today.