Bessie Coleman

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Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman, First African American Pilot - GPN-2004-00027.jpg
Born (1892-01-26)January 26, 1892
Atlanta, Texas, U.S.
Died April 30, 1926(1926-04-30) (aged 34)
Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.
Nationality American
Known for Aviator

Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African American descent and was also the first woman of Native American descent to hold a pilot license.[1][2][3] She is also the first person of African American and Native American descent to hold an international pilot license.[2][3][4]

Early life[edit]

Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George, who was part Cherokee, and Susan Coleman, who was African-American.[3][5] When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23.[5] Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six and 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 of her one-room school. Every year, Coleman's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. In 1901, Coleman's life took a dramatic turn: George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was then called, to find better opportunities, but Susan and the children did not go with the father. At age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. 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.[6]



In 1916 at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop where she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. She took a second job at a chili parlor to procure money faster to become a pilot.[7] American flight schools admitted neither women nor blacks, and no black U.S. aviator would train her. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad.[8] Coleman received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.[9]


Coleman's aviation license

Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 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."[10] On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license, and the first person of African American and Native American descent to earn 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 the 1920s, 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 in the neighborhood of Parramore. A local street was renamed "Bessie Coleman" Street in her honor in 2013. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and Coleman opened a beauty shop in Orlando to earn extra money to buy her own plane.[11]


Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—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. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one 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 returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.[10]

"Queen Bess," as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. 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 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"[12] and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.[13] 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 Chicago Midway Airport).

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 aviator, 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.

Bessie Coleman, c.1922

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.[10]

Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. "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".[14] 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.[15]


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's being so poorly maintained and worn out.[16] 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, then spun around. 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 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 slid into the gearbox and jammed it. Coleman was 34 years old.[10][17]


Bessie Coleman's portrait

A public library in Chicago was named in Coleman's honor, as are roads at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California, Tampa International Airport in Florida, and at Frankfurt International Airport.[18] A memorial plaque has been placed by the Chicago Cultural Center at the location of her former home, 41st and King Drive in Chicago, and by custom black aviators drop flowers during flyovers of her grave at Lincoln Cemetery.[19]

A roundabout leading to Nice Airport in the South of France was named after her, March 2016.

Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill, Texas, is named for her.

Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived as a child is named in her honor.

B. Coleman Aviation, a fixed-base operator based at Gary/Chicago International Airport is named in her honor.[20]

Several Bessie Coleman Scholarship Awards have been established for high school seniors planning on careers in aviation.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Coleman in 1995.[21] The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.

In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, arguably American aviation's most prestigious honor.

In 2012, a bronze plaque with Coleman's likeness was installed on the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies located on the site of the Jacksonville airfield where Coleman's fatal flight took off.[22]

Coleman was honored with a toy character in season 5, episode 11a of the children's animated television program Doc McStuffins.

She was placed at No. 14 on Flying's 2013 list of the "51 Heroes of Aviation".[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926). Retrieved 2010-03-03.
  2. ^ a b "Some Notable Women In Aviation History". Women in Aviation International. Retrieved 2008-04-10. 
  3. ^ a b c David H. Onkst (2016). "Women in History: Bessie Coleman". Natural Resources Conservation Service Nevada. Retrieved 2016-01-05. 
  4. ^ "Pioneer Hall of Fame". Women in Aviation International. Archived from the original on 2008-03-27. Retrieved 2008-04-10. 
  5. ^ a b "Texas Roots". Atlanta Historical Museum. 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  6. ^ Morales, Roni. Texas State History Association, ed. "Coleman, Bessie (The Handbook of Texas Online)". Archived from the original on 2011-12-24. Retrieved 2013-05-19. Upon graduation from high school, she enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Financial difficulties, however, forced her quit after one semester. 
  7. ^ Creasman, Kim (Winter 1997). "Black Birds in the Sky: The Legacies of Bessie Coleman and Dr. Mae Jemison". The Journal of Negro History. 82 (1): 159. JSTOR 2717501. 
  8. ^ "Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)". PBS. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  9. ^ Bessie Coleman biography at Archived September 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
  10. ^ a b c d Rich, Doris (1993). Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. pp. 37, 47, 57, 109–111, 145. ISBN 1-56098-265-9. 
  11. ^ Orlando Sentinel (January 31, 2015). "Bessie Coleman, black aviatrix, Orlando street renamed - Orlando Sentinel". 
  12. ^ Toth, Maria Lynn (February 2001). Daredevil of the Sky: The Bessie Coleman Story LA Times. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
  13. ^ "NEGRESS PILOTS AIRPLANE.: Bessle Coleman Makes Three Flights for Fifteenth Infantry," New York Times, September 4, 1922, 9
  14. ^ Powell, William J. (1934). Black Wings. Los Angeles: Ivan Deach, Jr. OCLC 3261929. 
  15. ^ Broadnax, Samuel L. (2007). Blue Skies, Black Wings: African American Pioneers of Aviation. Westport, CT: Praeger. p. 17. ISBN 0-275-99195-4. 
  16. ^ "Bessie Coleman Facts". 
  17. ^ Onkst, David H. "Bessie Coleman". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Archived from the original on 2012-10-08. Retrieved 2009-09-27. 
  18. ^ Google Maps
  19. ^ "Coleman". 
  20. ^ "About B Coleman Aviation". Retrieved May 21, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Stamp Series". United States Postal Service. Archived from the original on August 10, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  22. ^ Soergel, Matt. (2013, October 28). Looking to honor the daring 'Queen Bess'. The Florida Times-Union, pg A-4.
  23. ^ "51 Heroes of Aviation". Flying. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bilstein, Roger. Aviation in Texas, Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985
  • King, Anita. Brave Bessie: First Black Pilot, Parts 1 and 2, Essence Magazine, May, June 1976
  • Fisher, Lillian M., Brave Bessie: Flying Free, Hencrick-Long, 1995
  • Freydberg, Elizabeth Hadley. Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird, Garland, 1994
  • Hart, Philip S. Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman, First Avenue Editions, 1996
  • Holway, John R. (2012). Bessie Coleman: Pioneering Black Woman Aviator. ISBN 9780985738914. 
  • Johnson, Dolores. She Dared to Fly: Bessie Coleman, New York: Benchmark Books, 1997
  • Plantz, Connie. Bessie Coleman: First Black Woman Pilot, Enslow Publishers, 2001

External links[edit]