Bessie Coleman ( January 26,1892- April 30, 1926), rose into the skies as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot. Popular for carrying out aerial tricks
Her mission was to inspire women and
African Americans to make their dreams come true. Sadly, her career ended in a horrific plane accident, but her story continues to inspire people around the world.
Her life was filled with ups and downs like most women at that time, but her determination was unmatched, and she reached her goals each time.
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, and had twelve brothers and sisters. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid, and her father, George Coleman, was an Native American. From a young age, Bessie helped out at home, by taking care of her siblings and picking cotton, and at age 18, she saved enough money to attend The Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma, but shortly after dropped out due to finacial issues.
She moved to Chicago in 1915 to stay with her two brothers .
She went to beauty school and became a manicurist, where she met several of Chicago's "black elite".In the meantime, her brothers fought in the army during World War I and returned home with tales from their service in France. Her brother John teased her that French women were allowed to learn how to fly aircraft, and this made Bessie want to become a pilot. She applied to a number of flight schools around the country, but no
school would take her as she was both an African American and a woman.
“I made my mind up to try. I tried and was successful.”
— Bessie Coleman
Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, was one of her contacts through her job as a manicurist. He urged her to go to France to learn flight. She got a new job to operate a chili restaurant to save money while learning French at Berlitz University. She pursued Abbott's advice and, with funding from many supporters, including Abbott, left for France in 1920.
Coleman was selected to the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. On 15 June 1921, she obtained an International pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Coleman's ambition was to own a plane and open her own flight school.
She made speeches and showed her air stunts in front of mosques, movie theatres, and schools to earn money. She refused to comment about anwhere segregated or discriminated against Black People.
“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”
— Bessie Coleman
In 1923, Bessie Coleman purchased her own plane, a World War I surplus Army training aircraft. She crashed in the aircraft days later, after a series of malfunctions . After a long rehab from fractured bones and a further battle to locate new sponsors, she was eventually able to get some new bookings for her stunt flying. She went back to performing dangerous air tricks in 1925.
On Juneteenth (June 19) in 1924 , she flew in a Texas air show. Her hard work allowed her save enough money to buy her own aircraft, a Jenny-JN-4 with an OX-5 engine (a Curtiss JN-4, according to some sources).Since Texas then was segregated, planners proposed to make two separate entrances for African Americans and white people to access the stadium.
Coleman refused to perform until there was only one gate for all to use. After several talks, the administrators decided to have one entrance, but people would also have to sit in different areas of the stadium. She decided to perform and became legendary for sticking up for her opinion.
Bessie Coleman took a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills on April 30, 1926.
Wills was piloting the plane while Coleman sat in the passenger seat, freeing her seat belt so that she could reach forward to get a better view of the ground while she prepared the next day's stunts. At about 3,000 feet in the air, a loose wrench was trapped in the aircraft compressor. Wills was no longer able to handle the steering wheel, and the plane turned over. Coleman got flung out of the plane at an altitude of 3000 ft, and died in the fall to the ground. the mechanic was also unable to take control, and the plane crashed and exploded, killing the mechanic.
For thousands of people, her passing was tragic. Widely known activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett held a funeral service in Chicago to commemorate Coleman. Her life must be celebrated every day as she paved the path for millions of peoples dreams to come true, and truely changed history.