Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first female African American pilot. She was born on January 26, 1892 and was the tenth of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman in Atlanta, Texas. Her father was of Native and African American descent. She attended a small school which was four miles from her house, a distance she covered daily to fulfill her love for learning. She was an intelligent student, and particularly excelled at Mathematics. Her father left the family to move to Oklahoma when she was 10 years of age. At the age of 12, she joined the Missionary Baptist Church, where she spent most of her teenage years. When she turned 18, she decided to enroll at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, which was then called “Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University”. However, she did not stay very long due to financial difficulties.

At the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to live with her brother where she worked as a manicurist. It was during this time that she developed an interest in flying after hearing stories about World War I pilots. She wanted to train as a pilot but because of racial barriers, she did not manage to find a trainer or get admitted to any aviation schools. Some of her friends encouraged her and financially supported her to move to Paris. She took a French language class at Berlitz School in Chicago and then moved to Paris in November 1920 where she got accepted at an aviation school. While training, she flew in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane. She earned her aviation license on June 15, 1921 to become the first African American woman to earn an international aviation license. In September 1921, she returned to the United States where she was subject to tremendous media attention for her singular achievements.

She then went on a speaking tour in Orlando where she met Reverend Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, who were very hospitable to her and invited her to stay at the parsonage with them. In 2013, a street in Orlando was named in her honor. Bessie Coleman made her living as a stunt pilot or “barnstormer” where she performed for audiences as a civilian aviator. She wanted to expand her skills but could not find anyone to train her so she returned to Europe in February 1922. After spending two months in France, she left for Netherlands to meet a distinguished aircraft designer named Anthony Fokker. She later went to Germany to visit Fokker’s aircraft design corporation. She then returned to the U.S. to participate in a flying exhibition. By then she had gained a reputation as a skilled pilot and her shows were always welcomed by huge crowds of cheering fans.

In 1923, she had an unfortunate accident during a flight in Los Angeles where her plane crashed and she broke her leg as well as three ribs. She was offered a role in a film called “Shadow and Sunshine” financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She accepted the role, hoping to earn enough money to start her own flying school. However, she was not happy with the role that was offered, as it required her to be in torn and tattered clothing, holding a walking stick. She still wanted to open up her own school, but unfortunately she was in a fatal airplane crash in April 1926. Bessie Coleman was 34 years old at the time of her death. Since her death, she has been honored extensively and several libraries, airports and scholarships have been named in her honor.

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