"Bessie Coleman ... although possessed of all the feminine charms that man admires in the opposite sex, also displayed courage equal to that of the most daring men."—William J. Powell
During the early 1920s, a young black manager of a chili restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, decided she wanted more out of life. The papers were filled with stories of the latest exploits of a new group of adventurers known as aviators. Deciding that was the career for her, Bessie Coleman pursued her dream across the ocean and became the first black woman to receive a pilot's license. She soon became a popular stunt and exhibition flier, thrilling thousands with her daring stunts. Although she died in an accident when she was only thirty-three, Coleman became an inspiration for a generation of black aviators.
Father leaves for Indian Territory
Coleman was born on January 26, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas. Her family moved to Waxahachie, near Dallas, while she was still a youngster. Her father was three-quarters Indian, and he moved back to Indian Territory when Coleman was only seven years old. Her mother, Susan, was left to look after the family—four daughters and a son—and supported them by picking cotton and doing laundry. The children also pitched in and helped whenever they could. Although Susan could not read or write at that time, she encouraged her children to get an education.
After finishing high school, Bessie Coleman wanted to go to college. Her mother let her keep the money she made from washing and ironing, so she could pay her college expenses. She enrolled at Langston Industrial College (now Langston University) in Oklahoma. College cost more than she expected, and Coleman was forced to drop out after one semester. She moved to Chicago, where she took a manicuring course. Coleman eventually found work at the White Sox Barber Shop on Thirty-fifth Street near State Street. Later she managed a chili restaurant on the same street.
Coleman had always been interested in reading, and she used her spare moments reading about current affairs. She also became interested in the new field of aviation. Looking for a new challenge, she decided to learn how to fly and get her pilot's license. Coleman was soon discouraged when all of her applications for entering aviation schools were rejected. A close friend, Robert S. Abbott, founder and editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper, encouraged her to learn French and study aviation overseas. She took his advice and took lessons from French and German pilots. Coleman also studied under the chief aviator for Anthony Fokker's aircraft corporation and learned to fly the highly regarded German Fokker airplane.
Receives her pilot's license
Coleman returned briefly to the United States in 1921 with her pilot's license. She made another trip to Europe before heading back to the United States in 1922 with her international pilot's license. It was a remarkable feat. Coleman was the first black woman to earn pilot's licenses, only ten years after the first American woman had earned a license and less than twenty years after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight in 1903.
With barnstorming a popular attraction in the United States and the main area of aviation open to women, Coleman decided to become a stunt and exhibition flier. During the Labor Day weekend in 1922, she made her first appearance in an air show at Curtiss Field near New York City, sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender. Coleman repeated her performance six weeks later at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Midway Airport) in Chicago, again sponsored by Abbott. Her manager was David L. Behncke, founder and president of the International Airline Pilots Association.
Coleman soon became known as Brave Bessie for her aviation exploits. She participated in air shows across the country, including her hometown of Waxahachie. She gave lectures on the opportunities in aviation at schools and churches wherever she went. While in California, she did some aerial advertising for the Firestone Rubber Company.
One of Coleman's lifelong dreams was to establish her own aviation school, where young black Americans could learn to fly and prepare for aviation careers. She saved money from her barnstorming and lecturing jobs, and by early 1926, she wrote to her sister Elois that she was on the verge of reaching her dream.
Tragedy at the air show
At the end of April 1926, Coleman accepted an invitation from the Negro Welfare League to perform in a Memorial Day air show. On April 30, 1926, Coleman and her mechanic made a practice run in Jacksonville, Florida, with the mechanic piloting the plane. During one of the maneuvers the plane's controls jammed. Coleman was catapulted out of the plane and fell to her death. She was fortunate to have seen her longtime supporter Robert Abbott shortly before the accident. She had chanced to meet him in a restaurant, and they had a reunion the day before her death. Her body was flown to Chicago and last rites were held at the Pilgrim Baptist Church at Thirty-third Street and Indiana Avenue. The burial was held at the Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Chicago.
Although gone, Coleman was by no means forgotten. A few years later, many black fliers belonged to the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. A monthly publication, the Bessie Coleman Aero News, was circulated to these clubs in May 1930, with William J. Powell as editor. Powell also wrote the book Black Wings in 1934, which looked at African American aviators. At the front of the book was a picture of Coleman in her flying uniform. Powell dedicated the book to "the memory of Bessie Coleman ... who although possessed of all the feminine charms that man admires in the opposite sex, also displayed courage equal to that of the most daring men."
Black aviators also paid tribute to Coleman by flying in formation over Lincoln Cemetery on Memorial Day and dropping flowers on her grave. In 1975 the Bessie Coleman Aviators organization was formed in the Chicago area by young African American women who were actively interested in aviation and aerospace.
In 1990 a fifty-one-foot-long mural was unveiled at Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport that recognized African Americans' achievements in aviation from 1917 to 1990. Titled "Black Americans in Flight" and painted by Spencer Taylor, it depicts seventy-five men and women pioneers in aviation, including Coleman. In 1992 Coleman received national recognition when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating her extraordinary life and accomplishments. That same year, the city of Chicago proclaimed May 2 as Bessie Coleman day. Fellow pilots fly over her grave in Chicago each year on the anniversary of her death.
- Ebony, May 1977, pp. 88-90; February 1979, pp. 16-18; February 1994, pp. 118-24.
- Essence, May 1976, p. 36; June 1976, p. 48.
- Fisher, Lillian, Brave Bessie: Flying Free, Hendrick-Long, 1995.
- Hart, Philip S., Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman, Carolrhoda Books, 1996.
- Jet, September 3, 1990, p. 34.
- Negro Digest, May 1950, pp. 82-83.
- Powell, William J., Black Wings, Ivan Deach, Jr., 1934.
- Rich, Doris L., Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.