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 from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Coleman was a bravely independent and determined woman, who decided that learning to fly provided an exciting challenge. However, in the early years of the 20th century she had two strikes against her: her race and her gender. Unable to secure flight training in the United States, she went to France and earned her license. She returned to the United States in September of 1921, and began to perform in the Chicago area, doing aerobatic loops and figure eights. Her ultimate goal was to establish a flying school for African Americans. In 1925 she moved to Houston and performed throughout the South, drawing multi-cultural crowds. She had nearly reached her goal of opening a school, when on April 30, 1926, she went up for a practice flight for a May Day celebration in Jacksonville, Florida. About ten minutes into the flight, the Curtiss Jenny biplane, piloted by her mechanic and publicity agent, William Will, went into a nose dive and flipped. Coleman, who had not fastened her seatbelt, was thrown from the plane and plunged to her death. However, her brief flying career inspired many young African Americans to enter the field of aviation and her legacy continues in the form of aviation clubs and tributes, including the 1995 U.S. postal stamp issued in her honor. Each year on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over "Brave Bessie's" grave in Chicago to drop flowers in her honor.

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