The short story of aviator Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

“The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”

Bessie Coleman was born into poverty in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 to a Black mother and a Black and Native American father. At the age of six she began her studies in a segregated, one-room school, a four mile walk from her home. She studied at this school for eight years, thriving as a math student and developing a love for reading.

When she was nine, her father left the family. And while Bessie continued her studies, she had to pick cotton and wash clothes to help earn money for the now fatherless family.

Throughout her teen years, Bessie was able to save a little money and at eighteen she began college. Her funds however were only good for one term, so she dropped out. But it was here in college that she learned about flying. She read tales of the Wright Brothers and of Harriet Quimby, the first American female pilot.

At twenty three Bessie found herself living in Chicago working as a manicurist and thinking of what to do next. Hearing stories of the war and European female pilots from her brother who had just returned from World War I, Bessie decided to become an aviator. She took on a second job to earn money to enter flight school, but soon discovered that flight schools in the United States only admitted white men.

With help and encouragement from a prominent African American businessman, Bessie learned French and enrolled in a French flight school, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. In 1921, Bessie became the first person of African American and Native American descent to earn an international pilot’s license.

Bessie returned to Chicago, but no one would hire a Black woman pilot. So Bessie once again went to Europe to learn to become a stunt pilot and parachutist.

Bessie had a successful, four year career as a barnstormer, or exhibition pilot, becoming known to her fans as “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”. She performed aerial stunts such as figure eights, loops, barrel rolls and daredevil dives until a mechanical failure in her airplane caused her untimely death at the age of 34. Bessie’s ultimate plan was to start an aviation school to train Black pilots.