Bessie Coleman: Aviation Barnstormer

Photo: Bessie Coleman was the first American of any race or gender to earn an international pilot's license and she was the first person of African descent to obtain a license.

The young Coleman dreamed of a racehorse society and not one of mules. It is in her generation that the Wright Brothers would build the flying machine and American pilot fighters would lead Europe through The Great War (World War I).

The Young Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in rural Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892 to a family laboring as sharecroppers. Coleman completed high school after an intensive self-study after she could no longer afford studies at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1910.

Coleman sought to enter flying school but her application was denied because of her race and gender. She decided to move from Oklahoma north, with two of the thirteen siblings that had relocated to Chicago. Through study and hard work, Coleman opened a beauty shop in Chicago where she would employ her family members immigrating from Texas to Chicago.

First Licensed Woman Pilot to Bessie Coleman's Last Flight in Florida

Photo: Bessie Coleman and her plane in 1922
Bessie Coleman began studying the French language in Chicago and soon bought a ticket from Chicago to France in 1919. In France, she studied at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy. After completing the program, she successfully tested to earn her International Flying License. She became the first woman of African descent to earn a pilot's license. Bessie Coleman obtained her pilot's license on June 15, 1921, after The Great War. Amelia Earhart received her pilot license from the National Aeronautic Association, the U.S. chapter of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, on May 15, 1923.

Bessie Coleman died like she lived, in the air. On April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman sat in the cockpit of a new plane, not the Curtis Jenny. Coleman's plane mechanic took up the new plane for a test flight. When the plane malfunctioned, Coleman fell from cockpit's opening. The plane crashed several hundred feet in the practice session. Her planned elaborate air show in Florida would never occur. Coleman's body was taken by train from Orlando to Chicago to ten thousand mourners who would pay their last respects to the flying legend. Bessie Coleman is buried at the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Cook County, Illinois, USA.

Photo: African American aviator. Bessie Coleman.

After Bessie Coleman, African flyers such as the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos (James Banning and Thomas Allen), the Tuskegee Airmen, Cornelius Coffey, John Robinson, Willa Brown and Harold Hurd would take to the skies. In 1929, William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. Since 1931, the Challenger Pilots' Association of Chicago has flown over Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery in honor of Bessie Coleman. Beginning in 1977, women pilots in the Chicago area have organized and associated as the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.

Further Reading: Hardesty, Von. "Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African American in Aviation and Space History," (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007).

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