Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to illiterate parents George and Susan Coleman. Bessie was the tenth of thirteen children. Her father and mother both worked as sharecroppers. When Bessie was two years old, her father moved the family to Waxahachie Texas, where he brought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-bedroom house in which two more daughter’s was born.
In 1901 Bessie father George left his family in search for better Opportunities. It’s unknown if George ever found better opportunities or if he ever returned to his family. Susan did her best to support herself and her children. While Bessie mother and two older brothers went to work Bessie was caretaker of her two younger sisters. Education for Bessie was limited to eight grade. Often there wasn’t paper to write on or pencils to write with. Bessie had to walk four miles to a one-room wooden shack. The school would close when the children were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton.
One day while in the cotton fields Bessie mother notice how good her daughter was at math, so she encourage Bessie to finish school and make something out of herself.
Bessie worked as a laundress, she able to save enough money that in 1910 after graduating from school she left home at the age eighteen and enrolled in Oklahoma Color Agricultural University and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She left after completing one year due to financial troubles. Bessie then moved back to Waxahachie, Texas where was worked again as an laundress until 1915.
In 1915 Bessie moved with her brothers to Chicago, Illinois. Within months of moving she became a manicurist in Chicago White Sox barbershop. While in Chicago she began listening and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation. Bessie went on a search for pilot schools in the Chicago area but she found out there was no African American aviator pilots in the area and no white pilot was willing to teach an African American. Bessie went to several leaders in South Side Chicago, one being the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender Robert Abbott.
Abbott suggested that she study aviation abroad in France. The French were not racist and were the world’s leaders in aviation Abbott told Bessie. Abbott and a banker named Jesse Binga gave Bessie financial backing.
Bessie learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago loop, withdraw her saving and the financial support she received form Abbott and Binga she set off for France on November 20, 1920. Once in France Bessie enrolled in Ecoled’ Aviation des Freres Caudren in Northern France the best international aviation school. She was the only non-Caucasian student in her class.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first African American woman to earn and aviation pilot license and the first African American to earn an international aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Bessie achieved her goal of becoming a pilot after only seven months.
Determined to polish her skills Bessie traveled to Europe, gaining further flying experience so that she could perform in air shows. When Bessie returned to the U.S in September 1921, scores of reporters turned out to meet her. She was invited as a guest of honor to attend the all black musical “Shuffle Along”. The entire audience included several hundred whites in the orchestra seat, rose to give the first African American Woman pilot a standing ovation.
Bessie outlined her goals for the “Chicago Defender” saying she wants to purchase her own airplane and open up a flying school in Chicago for all races.
Over the next five years Bessie performed at countless air shows. Bessie first airshow took place on September 3, 1922 in Garden City, Long Island, its was an event to honor the Veterans of the all-black 369th infantry Regiment of World War I. Bessie refused to perform in any air show with an Segregated audience, she believe that there was freedom in the skies.
A Tragic Death
Bessie left Orlando, Florida by train to give a benefit exhibition for the Negro Welfare League, it was scheduled for May 1, 1926. Bessie took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, together with a young Texan mechanic man named William Wills.
On April 30, 1926 at 3,500 feet and wills at the controls while Bessie sat in other cockpit to survey the area which she was to fly and parachute jump the next day, her seat beat was unattached because she had to lean out over the edge of the plane to pick out the best sites for her program. About 15 Minutes into the flight the old plane spun out of control made a dive, Bessie was thrown from the plane at 2,000 feet, she died instantly when she hit the ground. Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and crashed, he also died at the scene.
Over 10,000 White and Blacks mourners came out and paid their respects to the first African American Woman Aviator. Her funeral was held in Chicago South Side and presided over by an outspoken advocate of equal rights Ida B. Wells. Bessie was 34 years old at the tine of her death.
Bessie has not been forgotten decades after her death.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill in 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 Gray/Chicago International Airport is named in her honor.
- 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. The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.
- In 2000, she was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame
- In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, arguably aviation’s most prestigious honor.
- In 2012, a bronze plaque with Coleman’s likeness was installed on the front doors of Paxton School for Advanced Studies located on the site of the Jacksonville airfield where Coleman’s fatal flight took off. She was placed at No. 14 on Flying Magazine‘s 2013 list of the “51 Heroes of Aviation”.