Bessie Coleman, the First African American to Fly an Airplane

Picture Credit: Manning Live
Picture Credit: Manning Live

Bessie Coleman was born on January 26th, 1892, in Texas, United States, and grew up in a neighborhood filled with poverty and discrimination. Bessie Coleman is famous for performing various flying tricks and one of her most important dreams was to inspire African American women globally. Despite the fact that her death ended tragically during one of her plane rides, Bessie Coleman inspired many women around the world to pursue a career in the aviation industry. 

Bessie Coleman was a sister of twelve siblings. George Coleman, her father, was a sharecropper, and Susan Coleman, her mother, was an African American maid. When Coleman was six years old, she attended a school that was of only a single room and was in a wooden shack. Trying to get away from racism, Bessie Coleman's father decided to move back to Oklahoma. However, her mother did not agree to move back with him and remain in Texas, Waxahachie with Bessie, who helped her mother with earning money by washing laundry and picking cotton. At the age of eighteen, Bessie Coleman had saved enough money to attend a university in Oklahoma, Colored Agricultural, and Normal University. However, Coleman was not able to afford it and dropped out only after one semester. 

In 1915, at the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago and lived with her brother. In Chicago, she saved some extra money by working as a manicurist. Her interest in aviation was formed when she'd hear World War I pilots on the radio. Her interest soon turned into a dream, and that dream was rejected by flying schools nation-wide. They did not want to enroll her in their academics for two reasons, because she was a woman and a person of color. Abbott, who was amongst the first African American millionaires, suggested Bessie Coleman attend a flying school based in France. Along with another American entrepreneur, Robert Abbot financially assisted Coleman to attend a flying school in France. In the month of November in 1920, Coleman left the United States to go to France to chase her dream. Being a woman of color in a flying school had not been easy for her. It was alarming for her to see the death of one of her classmates during practice. In 1921, Bessie Coleman was awarded an International Pilot's Licence by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France. 

In 1921, when Coleman returned to the United States from France, she had become a renowned personality and many media personalities came to meet her personally since she was officially the first African American woman to be a pilot. To earn a living, she did stunt flying and parachuting as well. In the following years, Coleman took part in numerous air shows and demonstrated her impeccable flying skills. In September 1922, she performed her first show at Garden City, Long Island.  Bessie Coleman refused to perform at any shows where African Americans were barred from the audience or crowd. At the age of 34, Coleman was killed in a tragic accident in Jacksonville, Florida on April 30, 1926. Bessie Coleman might have been killed that day, but she paved the way in aviation for women worldwide. 

The roads of Tampa International Airport, O'Hare International Airport, Oakland International Airport, and Germany's Frankfurt International Airport were named in the honor of Bessie Coleman, along with a public library in Chicago. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2001 and in 2006, Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2014, she was again inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Soulivity Magazine