Bessie Coleman is a name we do not hear too often, she was the first African American to gain an international permit to fly. Elizabeth Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26th, 1892 as the 10th child of 12 siblings to her parents; George and Susan Coleman. Coleman showed talent in math, her mother encouraged her to go to school and so she did. At the age of 18 Bessie enrolled in Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Coleman only stayed for one term because, of the expense. In 1916 at the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois where her brother Walter lived working as a Sharecropper. Coleman got a job at a nail salon and at the Chicago White Sox barbershop.
Coleman’s fascination with planes and flying came from the stories her brothers would tell after coming home from World War l and told her that French women are allowed to fly. Coleman attempted to enroll in many flight schools, but was turned down because she was African American and a woman. Coleman received encouragement and financial support from Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender and Chicago banker Jesse Binga, to study abroad.
Coleman traveled to Pairs on November 20th, 1920 to seek training to get her pilots license. She was finally allowed to enroll and received her license to fly on June 15th 1921. Coleman continued training in France, until September when she came back to the U.S and became a sensation. Coleman had many jobs to save up to buy her very own plane; she moved to Orlando, Florida and realized that she could be making more money as a stunt flyer. She took course to France in 1922, eventually traveling to Germany where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received training from one of the company’s chief pilots.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman was killed in an airplane piloted by William Wills, her mechanic and publicity agent, as he flew her over the field of the next day’s air show in Jacksonville, Florida where she was slated as the star. Coleman was 34 at the time of her death and had just purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) airplane in Dallas, finally being able to have one of her own. Several years after her death, black aviators formed a network of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs. The largest of these was organized by pilot William J. Powell in Los Angeles. In 1990, a road close to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was renamed for her. Bessie Coleman was welcomed into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000 and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.
“The Air is the only place free from prejudice”
Sources: Elizabeth Coleman, Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird (New York: Garland Publishers, 1994); Dolores Johnson, She Dared to Fly: Bessie Coleman (New York: Benchmark Books, 1997); Philip S. Hart, Quote from: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/bessie_coleman_394554