“The Air is the only place free from prejudices.”
Known as “Queen Bess, Brave Bessie,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World,” Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was the world’s first Black licensed pilot. She was later viewed as paving the way for future African American accomplishments in aviation and the U.S. Air Force.
Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to Black and Native American parents, Coleman grew up in an exceptionally large and financially poor family with thirteen siblings.
From picking cotton to ironing to help her mother make ends meet, Coleman’s impoverished life led her to Chicago where she tried manicuring and working at a Barber Shop.
Coleman had a lifelong dream to fly an airplane – something almost any woman let alone a man would do. Flying was her freedom from racism, poverty, and pain.
When she was in Chicago, she stayed with her brother. Living in the windy city fed her passion and fantasy for flying, listening to the stories of pilots returning from their adventures during World War I.
Her brother John teased her because French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes and, in the United States, Coleman could not.
Teasing comments from her brother that women in France were better off than their African American women counterparts because they were allowed to fly fueled her passion even more. However, as she applied to American flight schools, Coleman was continuously rejected from countless flight schools throughout the U.S. Because of her race and gender, no American School would accept her. To her brother and all the schools who said no, her response was, “I refused to take no for an answer.”
The Editor for the Chicago Defender, one of the Nation’s largest Black newspapers helped Bessie with researching flight schools that would accept her.
In 1920 her opportunity came when took the opportunity to go to France to learn how to fly. She studied for ten months in France and earned a license on June 15, 1921, from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The racism in America forced Coleman and so many African Americans to seek opportunities in France such as the great and legendary Josephine Baker.
Coleman distinguished herself as the first Black person in the world to become a licensed pilot. After receiving additional training from a French ace pilot near Paris, Coleman came back to the United States.
She returned to the United States in 1921. Her second dream in addition to making flying her career was to open a flying school for black women. In 1922 went back to Europe taking lessons from the chief pilot for the Fokker Aircraft Company in Germany. She trained with the world’s top aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and then returned home again to launch her career in exhibition flying.
Coleman became an instant celebrity who wowed thousands watching her flying tricks in the air as “Queen Bess” flying the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes to stunt in shows around the United States. She was labeled “the world’s greatest woman flier” showing air displays with some of America’s top ace pilots from WWI.
At the height of her young career and eventual plans to launch a school for Black aviators, Coleman experienced tragedy and lost her life. In the words of the U.S. Airforce, “On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Fla., preparing to fly in an airshow there using a newly purchased Curtiss biplane, despite safety concerns from family and friends. With her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, flying the plane, Coleman was in the other seat scouting the terrain for a parachute jump the next day - with her seatbelt unfastened. About 10 minutes into the flight, the plane began to spin rather than pull out of an intended dive. Coleman was thrown from the plane from a height of about five hundred feet and died instantly upon impact. Unable to gain control, Wills also plummeted to the ground and died on impact. It was later discovered in the wreckage that a wrench had slid into the gearbox, causing it to jam. Coleman's funeral in Jacksonville on May 2, 1926, was attended by more than 5,000 mourners, many of whom were prominent members of black society. Three days later her body arrived in Orlando, Fla., where thousands more attended a funeral at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Her final journey took her back to Chicago, where more than 10,000 people filed past her coffin to pay final respects before her burial in the Lincoln Cemetery. In the years following her death, Bessie Coleman aero clubs would spring up throughout the country, and, on Labor Day in 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, attracting more than 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established a fly-over of her gravesite, and her name began appearing on buildings in the Harlem area of New York City. William J. Powell, a lieutenant serving in an all-black unit during World War I, penned in his 1934 book, "Black Wings," "Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than a racial barrier. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."