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Bessie Coleman

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 to encourage flying among men and women of our Race who are so far behind the White race in this modern study.
–Bessie Coleman

Born 1896 in Atlanta, Texas, she was the twelfth of thirteen children. Growing up in a world of poverty and discrimination, Coleman left the South and headed to Chicago determined to make something of herself. Discovering that there was no more opportunity for black people in Chicago than in the South, Coleman became enamored with aviation and decided to become a pilot. Being black and a woman, it was no easy task but Bessie Coleman became the first black woman ever to fly an airplane and the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license.

At age seven, Coleman’s father, part Native American, left his family to fend for themselves when he returned to Oklahoma Indian Territory. Coleman’s childhood involved domestic responsibilities and helping her mother do laundry as well as picking cotton to augment the family income. Displaying an aptitude for mathematics, she avoided the back-breaking work of picking cotton and was assigned to keep the books. After graduation from high school, she was unable to find acceptable work and, not content with her life in Texas, migrated to Chicago as many blacks did at the time.

Joining her brothers in Chicago, Coleman eschewed the domestic and factory jobs traditionally assigned to black women in the labor force. Instead, she trained as a manicurist and worked at a barbershop. In this male environment, where she became enthralled with the exploits of pilots returning from World War I and her brothers’ stories of French women pilots, she decided to become a pilot. At the time, very few women had aviator’s licenses and, in addition, these women were white and wealthy. Coleman tried to enroll in aviation schools, but was summarily rejected on the basis of her race and gender. She enlisted the help of Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender, who proposed that she stood a better chance to be accepted at a flying school in Europe. Coleman studied French, saved her money and, supplemented by funds from Abbott and another African American philanthropist, Jesse Binga, headed to France. After studying with French and German pilots, she gained her international pilot’s license, becoming the first black woman in the world to do so. Returning to Chicago as a bona fide aviatrix, she embarked on a career of exhibition flying. Her first show was at Chicago’s Checkerboard Field, where she dazzled the crowd with her gravity-defying aerial stunts and her flair for showmanship. 

Touring the country as a barnstorming pilot, with the proviso that her audiences were not segregated, she was an inspiration for many young African Americans, who now viewed a career in aviation as a possibility. She lectured at schools, churches and recreational facilities in the African American community, encouraging her people to enter the aviation field. Her dream was to launch her own flying school for African Americans but it was tragically unrealized.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman died in an airplane crash in Jacksonville, Florida. Not being able to acquire a plane by any means in Florida, Coleman had her mechanic, William Wills of Dallas, Texas, fly a plane to her. During a test flight, Wills was at the controls when a wrench got caught in the gearbox. Coleman was not wearing a seat belt at the time and plummeted to her death.

While not fully recognized for the substantial contribution she made to the race, her pioneering achievements opened the door for many women and African Americans to pursue aviation as a profession. A group of African American women pilots have established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club , open to all women pilots. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, members of the club, together with pilots from the Chicago American Pilots Association and the Negro Airmen International, fly low and drop flowers on her grave. 

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