First Black Woman Who Could Fly: Bessie Coleman

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas to Susan and George Coleman. Bessie was an American aviator and the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. After graduating from school, she went to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University which is now known as Langston University, where she completed only one term due to not having enough money.

At 23, she moved to Chicago with her brothers and began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation. Bessie wanted to become a pilot and applied to lots of flight schools across the country, but no school would take her because she was both African American and a woman. Famous African American newspaper publisher, Robert Abbott told her to move to France where she could learn how to fly. She began taking French classes at night because her application to flight schools needed to be written in French.

Bessie was accepted into and earned her license from France’s well-known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in just seven months. In 1922, Bessie broke barriers and become the world’s first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. She wanted to start a flying school for African Americans. She was well-known for stunt flying and parachuting. Her high-flying skills always wowed her audience.

Bessie returned to her hometown in Texas to perform for a large crowd. Texas was still segregated so the managers planned to create two separate entrances for African Americans and white people to get into the stadium. Coleman refused to perform unless there was only one gate for everyone to use. The managers finally agreed to have one gate, but the guests would still have to sit in segregated sections of the stadium. She agreed to perform and became famous for standing up for her beliefs.

On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman took a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills. Wills was piloting the plane, as Coleman sat in the passenger seat. While in flight, a loose wrench got stuck in the engine of the aircraft. Wills couldn’t control the steering wheel and the plane flipped over. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt and airplanes at that time did not have a roof or any protection. Coleman immediately fell out of the open plane and died. Wills crashed a few feet away from Coleman’s body and also died. Her death was heartbreaking for thousands of people. Famous activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett performed the funeral service to honor Coleman in Chicago. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago started a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year. By 1977, African American women pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the “Bessie Coleman Stamp” was made to remember all of her accomplishments.

References:
https://www.biography.com/explorer/bessie-coleman
APA: Alexander, K.L. (2018). Bessie Coleman. Retrieved from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman
Chicago: Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Bessie Coleman.” National Women’s History Museum. 2018. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman.
MLA: Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Bessie Coleman.” National Women’s History Museumhttps://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman. Accessed [Feb 3, 2020].

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