Bessie Coleman – First Female African-American Pilot

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was the first woman of African-American descent, and the first of Native American descent, to hold a pilot license. She achieved her international pilot license in 1921.

Coleman's aviation license

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children, she went into the cotton fields at a young age but also studied in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University.

Bessie Coleman's father George Coleman was mostly Cherokee or Choctaw and part African-American, and her mother Susan was African-American. When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23.

free money for college

Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six. She had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed all eight grades in that school. Every year, Coleman's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest.

In 1901, George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, as it was then called, to find better opportunities; but Susan and her family did not go along. At age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She completed one term before her money ran out and she returned home.

In 1915 at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her two brothers, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop and supported herself as her brothers went to fight in World War I. There she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. 

Coleman quickly learned that Chicago wasn’t any friendlier to the dreams of a young black woman than the Jim Crow South. She took a second job at a chili parlor to procure money faster to become a pilot. American flight schools admitted neither women nor blacks. Coleman turned to role model, Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, who encouraged her to study abroad. 

Blac Millionaire, publisher, and editor of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott

Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, saved up money to go to France and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license.

Jesse Binga, founded, The Binga State Bank, the first privately owned African-American bank in Chicago.

Coleman also received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet." On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

In Orlando on a speaking tour, she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and open a beauty shop to earn extra money to buy her own plane. A local street in Orlando was renamed "Bessie Coleman" Street in her honor in 2013.

With the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a "barnstorming" stunt flier and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire.

The video below, in dedication to Bessie Coleman, is of barnstormer performances. The captions in the video are in Spanish and the beginning captions and translations are: "Mujer de aeroplanos" = Woman of Airplanes and "La Mujer de el cielo" = The woman from the sky. The ending caption, "La primeria mujer En el cielo" = The first woman in the sky.

Returning to Chicago, Coleman could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.

Coleman soon became a successful air show pilot in the United States, and hoped to start a school for African American fliers."Queen Bess," as she was known, was a highly popular draw. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flier" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.

Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve).

But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman's dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day "amount to something." As a professional aviatrix, 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. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.

Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. "Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist, though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks" wrote Doris Rich.

Unfortunately, Coleman would not live long enough to establish 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 had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow but had to make three forced landings along the way due to the plane being so poorly maintained.

Upon learning this, Coleman's friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. She had not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About ten minutes into the flight the plane unexpectedly went into a dive and then a spin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground.

William Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane exploded and burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.

"Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."

Lieutenant William J. Powell (1897-1942)

Powell was a successful owner of several automobile service stations in Chicago who moved to Los Angeles to learn to fly. By the early 1930s, Powell had organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club to promote aviation awareness in the black community. Both men and women were welcome to apply. Powell became a talented visionary and promoter of black involvement in aviation.

Members of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, William J. Powell (far right)

Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929

Bessie Coleman's role as a pioneering aviator was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African American community.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Portions above republished from Wikipedia. For additional information, visit the official Bessie Coleman website.