“The air is the only place free from prejudices.” —Bessie Coleman
Born this day in 1892: Bessie Coleman (1892–1926), aviator and barnstormer; first African American licensed pilot
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, the daughter of sharecroppers. In her early twenties she moved to Chicago, where a brother lived. Tales of World War I pilots excited in her an interest in aviation. She could find no aviation school, however, that would accept her—a black woman. So she learned French, and with the help of some sponsors, went to France in 1920 to study at the famous Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy. She became the first American woman to earn an international pilot's license. She was also the first licensed African American aviator.
Upon returning home to the United States, the same barriers that prevented her from learning to fly in the U.S. kept her from becoming a commercial pilot. She discovered she could make a living performing in aerial shows. So she returned to France for further training, learning the skills needed to become a stunt pilot.
She was a brash and daring pilot whose exploits earned the popular aviator the nickname “Queen Bess.” Coleman worked hard to make a name for herself. She never, however, compromised her principles. She steadfastly refused to perform to segregated crowds and alienated the entertainment industry by backing out of a movie role when discovered she was being asked to portray a degrading racial stereotype.
Coleman’s ultimate goal was to open her own aviation school. In addition to stunt shows, she gave lectures to black audiences, hoping to inspire them to take to the skies.
Coleman needed to raise money to buy an airplane and a hangar to put it in. Tragically, she was killed when she and her mechanic, William D. Wills, were test driving an old plane she managed to secure. A wrench became tangled in the gearbox and Dills lost control of the plane. Coleman was flung from the aircraft, which then crashed to the ground. Both Coleman and Dills were killed.
Coleman succeeded in inspiring other women and African Americans to fly. Flying clubs were established in her name, she was honored with a U.S. postal stamp, and Chicago honored her by renaming a road at O’Hare airport “Bessie Coleman Drive” and by holding a “Bessie Coleman Day.”
Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001.
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