Bessie Coleman was the first Black female pilot to earn a pilot’s license. She became famous for her flying stunts and aerial tricks. Her legacy in Black History is solidified as she was one of the first to break through racial barriers and glass ceilings.
Key Facts & Information:
- Bessie Coleman was born and raised in Texas. Her father left to escape the segregated conditions of Jim Crow in Texas to move to Indian territory in Oklahoma but Bessie’s mother declined and stayed behind in Texas with the children.
- By the age of 18, she had saved up enough to relocate to Oklahoma and attend Langston University. Even though she had to leave and was only able to attend for one semester due to financial hardship, her efforts were admirable and served as a precursor to her future drive and resilience.
- At the age of 23, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers where she attended the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and became a manicurist and worked in a local barbershop while her brothers went off to fight in World War I. She also opened a successful chili parlor on Chicago’s south side
- Coleman was married to Claud Glenn in 1917 but never publicly acknowledged the marriage.
- Motivated by the stories her brothers shared with her about how French women were allowed to learn to fly, Coleman decided she wanted to become a pilot.
- She applied to multiple schools across the country but was denied admission due to her race and gender
- As a result of being denied admission to schools in the United States, Bessie found sponsorship through the local paper, The Chicago Defender, and other sponsors. She learned French at the Berlitz school in the Chicago Loop. She then relocated to France where she enrolled in Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation where she specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. She earned her pilot’s license in 1921
- When she returned to the states, she borrowed a plane from American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and started performing shows from Chicago to Texas until she made enough money to purchase her own plane.
- Determined and courageous as ever, Coleman refused to perform at shows that required blacks to utilize the main entrance or segregated audiences. She even refused to portray herself in a movie because it began with a depiction of her in rags and she felt it was demeaning.
- While in California, she purchased a JN-4 or Jenny plane but had an accident that resulted in a broken leg and ribs. It would be another two years before she flew again.
- Coleman wanted to open up a school for African Americans interested in learning how to fly. Pulling from her aesthetic background, she opened a beauty school in Orlando, FL to reach her goal faster.
Death, Legacy, & Honors
- Coleman met an untimely death in April of 1930 while test driving her recently paid off Jenny plane. She was only 34.
- Her death was all but a footnote in the mainstream press but Black news media made sure to give her just due. Journalist Ida B. Wells presided over memorial services held in Orlando, Jacksonville, and Chicago where thousands attended.
- One year after her death, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual flyover in honor of Coleman at Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery, and in 1977 female pilots from the city organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.
- William J. Powell finally made Coleman’s dream of opening a flying school for Black people a reality when he opened the Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, CA in 1929.
- On May 2, 1992, Bessie Coleman Day was declared in Chicago, the city that inspired her career. In 1995 by the U.S. Postal Service with a Black Heritage commemorative stamp.
While Coleman didn’t live to see her dream of opening a school materialize, her contribution to Black History is essential. She embodied the possibilities of what could be through passion and determination. In the end, she did finally receive praise for her contributions in aviation and breaking barriers.
For more information on Bessie Coleman for kids, go to SankofaChicago.com
The Life of Bessie Coleman
Connie Plantz (Author)