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​First Black Woman Pilot Bessie Coleman

​Bessie Coleman - short biography

Bessie Coleman   1893-1926

In 1922, Bessie Coleman received her air pilot's licence from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France, to become the first Black woman pilot.  Born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1893, she was the 12 of 13 children.  Although her mother could not read or write, she managed to obtain books from a traveling library wagon twice a year, so that Bessie could read to the family.

Bessie was born with a driving force to learn and to better her position.  She finished high school and wanted to go to college, but her mother could not afford to send her.  Instead, Mrs. Coleman let Bessie keep her earnings from washing and ironing to attend Langston Industrial College which is now Langston University.  Bessie's money lasted only one semester.  Afterwards, she went to live with an older brother in Chicago, Illinois where she attended beauty school and worked as a manucurist at the White Sox Barber Shop.  Although her dreams of college had been shattered, she was still an avid reader.  She began devouring everything she could find on aviation.  By the time World War 1 was over, she had made a firm decision to learn to fly.

Bessie's quest to obtain flying instruction in the United States was fought with blatant prejudice for two obvious reasons: her race and her sex.  But, Bessie Coleman was not to be denied; she met both obstacles head on.  Persistent in her effort, she went to Robert S. Abbot, editor and publisher of the Chicago Weekly Defender, for help.  After extensive investigation, he informed her that the French were more liberal in their attitudes toward women and people of color and encouraged her to study French and go to France.

With the money Bessie earned from her manicurist's job and from a chili parlor she managed, she made two trips to Europe.  She studied under the Best European flyers, including the chief pilot for Germany's Fokker Aircraft Company.  When she returned from Europe for the second time in 1922, she returned as the only black female pilot in the entire world.  In Bessie's mind, "what use us an achievement if it cannot be shared?"  Her primary goal was to open a flying exhibitions to raise funds to open her school.

Her first exhibitions, in 1922, was at Checkerboard Field (now Chicago's Midway Airport).  Between exhibitions, she lectured on aviation in churches and movie houses.  In Boston, she did loops over the spot on the Charles River where Harriet Quimby (America's first woman pilot) had been killed.  Once, in her home state, she refused to put an exhibitions at a white school ground unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance.  They were, but they were seated separately inside.  Her first accident occurred in 1924, in California while doing advertising for the Firestone Rubber Company.

At the threshold of opening a school, Bessie suffered her fatal accident.  On April 30, 1926, she had been asked to give an exhibition by the Jacksonville, Florida Negro Welfare League.  Bessie hired a white pilot, William Wills to fly her plane while she was in the passengers seat so she could determine a good place to land with her parachute the following day.  With Wills piloting and Bessie in the passengers seat the plane lost control and since Bessie did not have her seat belt on so she could see better she fell out and died. Wills crashed the plane into a tree, he also died. 

A most eloquent comment on the life and death of the world's first black woman pilot was made in the Chicago Weekly Defender on the 10th Anniversary of her death: "Though with the crashing of the plane, life ceased for Bessie Coleman, enough members of her race had been inspired by her courage to carry on in the field of aviation, and whatever is accomplished by members of the race in aviation will stand as a memorial to Miss Coleman."  It is said that every year on Memorial Day, pilots fly over Bessie Coleman's grave and drop flowers in her honor.

Excerpt from A Salute to Historic Black Women

This is only a summary of the life of Bessie Coleman, the first black pilot in the world!