Bessie Coleman: First Black & Native American Female Pilot
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, into a large family. Bessie had twelve brothers and sisters! Her mother was Black, and her father was of Black and Native American descent. Bessie’s father eventually headed to Oklahoma for better opportunities while the rest of the family stayed in Texas. Bessie grew up helping her mom pick cotton and wash laundry to earn money.
When she was 23 years old Bessie ended up moving to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers hoping to have better work and life opportunities. She attended Burnham School of Beauty Culture and became a manicurist in a local barbershop. While she was attending school, her brothers served in World War 1. When they returned, they had many stories about their time in France, including that women could fly planes which was not the case in the states. After hearing their stories and listening to her older brothers poke fun at her for not being able to become a pilot, Bessie decided she was going to prove them wrong. She applied to as many flight schools as she could find but none would admit her because she was both Black and a woman. Robert Abbott, a famous Black newspaper publisher, encouraged Bessie to go to France to learn to fly and get her pilot’s license. Bessie began learning French at night, applied to flight school, and was accepted into Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Crotoy, France. With her savings and some help from Robert Abbott, Bessie was off to France to get her pilot’s license.
On June 15, 1921 Bessie was awarded her pilots license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She returned home with a dream to own a plane and open a flight school. She immediately got to work earning money to realize her dreams. She gave speeches, showed films of her flights and in 1922 began doing stunt flights to earn money. She was famous for performing “loop-the-loops” and figure 8’s in the air fascinating people and increasing her fame. She was also famous for refusing to perform in places that did not allow Black people to attend and encouraged Black people to learn to fly.
In 1923 Bessie survived a plane crash after the engine stopped working, but after recovering she was back at it in 1925. She had even saved up enough money to purchase a Jenny – JN4 airplane.
Her tragic last flight took place in Jacksonville, Florida in April of 1926. Bessie and her mechanic William Wills were preparing for an air show to happen the next day. William was flying while Bessie was riding shot gun when at 3,500 feet a loose wrench got caught up in the control gears. Planes back then did not have a roof, so as William lost the ability to control the plane it rotated upside down essentially dumping Bessie out. She fell to her death as the plane crashed also killing William.
Her funeral was held in Chicago’s South Side where an estimated 10,000 mourners paid their respects and famous activist Ida B. Wells presided over the funeral. Her dream of a flight school for Black people was realized after her death when in 1977 a group of Black female pilots started the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. Also, in 1931 the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago started the tradition of flying over her grave each year.