In celebration of Black History Month we will be showcasing some remarkable African-Americans who have contributed to American culture. We’ll have these stories on our website throughout the month of February. Following, as learned from PBS’s American Experience, is the first of our profiles.
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American and the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892, the tenth of thirteen children, Bessie started her education at the age of six in a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk from her home. It was a segregated school that struggled for funds. Often there wasn’t paper to write on or pencils to write with.
But she persevered, and at the age of 12 Bessie Coleman received a full scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church School. At 18 she enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now called Langston University, the only historically Black college in the state). When she turned 23 she moved to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers.
In Chicago it was the soldiers returning from World War I with stories of their flying exploits who first got Coleman interested in aviation. It was that and her brother, who teased her that French women were superior to African-American women because they could fly. (In fact, very few women of any race had pilot’s licenses in 1918.)
Coleman became determined to fly herself, but every flying school that she approached refused her admission because she was both Black and a woman. With the support and advice of Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender and one of the first African-American millionaires, Coleman decided to go to France. She learned French at a Berlitz school in Chicago and then set off for Paris.
Coleman was the only student of color in her class. But she was determined to succeed. She learned to fly in a 27-foot biplane that was known to fail frequently, sometimes in the air. She once witnessed a fellow student die in a plane crash, which was a “terrible shock” to her nerves, but she wasn’t deterred. After 7 months, in June 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot’s license.
When Coleman returned to the U.S. that September, scores of reporters turned out to meet her, and the “Air Service News” called her “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.”
Commercial flights were then few and far between, and Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a ‘barnstorming’ stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the still early technology of airplanes for paying audiences. After returning to Europe for advanced training, she came back to the US to perform in countless air shows.
Coleman used her position of prominence to encourage other African-Americans to fly. She said, “The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew we needed to be represented along this most important line…I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
It was on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida that Coleman took her tragic last flight. She and a young mechanic named William Wills were practicing for an air show taking place the following day. At 3,500 feet with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plunged to the earth. Both Coleman and Wills were killed in the crash.
For years starting in 1931, Black pilots from Chicago made annual fly-overs of Bessie Coleman’s grave. In 1977 a group of African-American women pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. And in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued the Bessie Coleman postage stamp. The Chicago City Council’s application for the stamp said that, “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands, even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude and her determination to succeed.”