women in aviation and space history

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman
SI 88-7993
National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Bessie Coleman

Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight (208)

On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received the first pilot’s license issued to an African American woman and to a Native American woman. The license was awarded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the aviation licensing body of Europe.

Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, to Susan and George Coleman. George, who had Native American grandparents, would eventually return to the Cherokee Nation, leaving Susan to raise Coleman and her siblings alone. Her hope for her children was “to amount to something.” Coleman, a bravely independent and determined woman, certainly did.

In 1920, 27-year old Bessie Coleman, now living in segregated Chicago, was at a personal crossroads. She sought a life beyond her job of manicurist in beauty salons. When her brother, a World War I veteran, taunted her about her future with stories of French women flyers she replied, “That’s it… You just called it for me!” She was determined to become a pilot. But in the United States, Black men were not welcome in aviation, let alone Black women.

Unfazed after white pilots refused to give her instruction, Coleman sought advice from Robert Abbot, publisher of the influential Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, and a constant advocate for the inclusion of Black people in American society. Sensing her commitment, and the resulting publicity if she succeeded, Abbot advised Coleman to learn French and seek training in France where Black people experienced more respect and opportunity than they did in the United States. Accordingly, Coleman took French lessons, and through jobs, family, and friends, saved enough money to journey to Paris. She was accepted by the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation, a well-respected flight school run by the renowned builders of World War I aircraft, and traveled to France to purse her goal. Flying the Nieuport 82 dual-controlled trainer, she earned her pilot’s license – the first African American woman to do so. Not only that, she earned her license in just seven months. She continued learning, taking more lessons from a veteran French ace.

Returning to the United States, Coleman was greeted by the press back in New York City and written about in the Chicago Defender. She quickly determined she needed more training to safely perform barnstorming stunts and someday operate her own flight school. She returned to Europe in early 1922 and trained for two months in France and ten weeks in Berlin, Germany, where she flew with German military aces. When she returned again to the United States, Black and white newspaper reporters greeted her in New York City and hailed her accomplishment.

On September 3, 1922, in a borrowed Curtiss JN-4D Jenny at Curtiss Field on Long Island, Bessie Coleman made the first public flight by a Black woman in the United States. She followed it with a flight in Memphis, Tennessee, and then a triumphant exhibition before the friendly, integrated crowd of 2,000 at Checkerboard Field in Chicago on October 15. However, subsequent flights, film opportunities, and managers in Chicago did not pan out. Without film and flying opportunities, Coleman considered advertising. In early 1923, she went to California to pursue an advertising venture with Coast Tire and Rubber of Oakland. Her hope was to break into barnstorming—one of the few jobs in aviation at this time. Barnstorming pilots earned a (very) modest living by joining aerial circuses or flying from town to town putting on exhibitions and giving rides in biplanes. Breaking into barnstorming was not easy for Coleman, however. After giving several newspaper interviews, she attracted some public interest, but also faced questions about her lack of distance flights, a common attention-getter with emerging pilots, and some racist and sexist backlash.

Coleman’s first public flight in California quickly ended in disaster when, on February 4, 1924, the engine in her newly purchased ($400) military surplus Curtiss Jenny quit on takeoff at 300 feet and Coleman crashed. She spent the next three months in the hospital, able only to give a few lectures before returning to Chicago. After her recovery, she managed to book one flight, billed as “the only colored aviatrix in the world,” in Columbus, Ohio, in September. Then spent a year saving money and planning her next move. By May 1925, she was in Houston for the first stop of a multi-city tour that included her childhood home of Waxahachie, Texas. Large integrated crowds watched her perform loops, figure-eights, and, when she couldn’t find anyone else to demonstrate the maneuver, parachute jumps. Spectators also paid for short plane rides in Coleman’s borrowed airplane. She was now a real barnstormer.

In addition, she was a popular speaker. Her talks, featuring photographs and film of her Berlin flights with the German pilots, drew large audiences and paid more than her flying. Black audiences, especially women, enjoyed her shows and talks, and offered hospitality in the form of rooms and meals. During this time, she found another surplus Curtiss Jenny in Texas and began paying it off. In the spring of 1926, she felt she was getting ever closer to her long-standing goal of opening a flight school.

Bessie Coleman fought for racial and gender equality on land as well as in the air. She steadfastly pursued her dream and lived her own unorthodox life – including firing several male managers and refusing movie roles she felt demeaning, reportedly responding to an offer to play a subservient woman by saying, “No Uncle Tom stuff for me.”

On April 30, 1926, at Paxon Field in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman went up for a practice flight in her own (but new to her) Jenny that her mechanic, William Wills, had just flown in from Texas. She was to perform for a May Day celebration the next day. Wills piloted the plane as Coleman surveyed the ground for a suitable parachute landing site. To do so, she did not buckle her seat belt because it prevented her from looking over the side the plane. About ten minutes into the flight, cruising at 3,500 feet, the Curtiss Jenny biplane accelerated and then suddenly went into a nosedive and tailspin and flipped over. Coleman was thrown from the aircraft and plunged to her death. Wills crashed with the plane and was also killed. A loose wrench had become lodged in the control gears, preventing Wills from righting the aircraft. Although the wrench should have been secured, or not even in the plane, the cause was determined to be accidental. Rumors of sabotage could not be stopped but could not be corroborated. It was a tragic, but not uncommon, accident in the heyday of barnstorming. Issues of safety were at that very moment being addressed by Congress with the Air Commerce Act of 1926 that mandated the regulation of pilots and aircraft.

Coleman had a strong following in the African American community and press, who mourned her passing. Ida B. Wells organized memorial ceremonies for Coleman and thousands attended. In her adopted town of Chicago, the 1930s Challenger Air Pilots Association sponsored annual memorial events including flying over “Brave Bessie’s” grave to drop flowers in her honor. Later in the century, Coleman was honored on a national scale. For instance, in 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in her honor.

Coleman’s brief flying career has inspired many young African Americans to enter aviation. In the early 1930s in Los Angeles, William Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Flying Club, put on exhibitions, and, through print and film, advocated for the employment of Black people in aviation. During her lifetime, Coleman declared “We must have aviators if we are to keep up with the times.” Generations of aviators and others were inspired to “keep up with the times” by Coleman. Coleman, in turn, not only kept up with the times, but changed them.

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(information compiled by D. Cochrane and P. Ramirez)