Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license.
In the 1920s, getting a pilot's license as a Black woman in the United States was impossible; so Coleman moved to France to get her flying certification. On June 15, 1921, Coleman achieved her goal—making history as the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license.
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.
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.
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 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.
Coleman did get a job as a barnstorming pilot, performing stunts at aviation shows. “Barnstorming” was a popular style of flying throughout the 1920s. Barnstormers flew figure eights and loops in the air, daringly turning their airplanes upside down, even letting people walk onto the wings of their airplanes while in flight. In an era of intense racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws, Coleman would only perform in exhibition shows if the crowds were desegregated.
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.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman and her mechanic went up for a practice flight before an upcoming performance. 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. Soon tragedy struck. Cruising at 3,500 feet, the biplane accelerated and then suddenly went into a nosedive, tailspin and flipped over. Coleman was thrown from the aircraft and plunged to her death. Wills crashed with the plane and was also killed.
Coleman was deeply mourned in the African American community. Coleman’s body lay in state in both Florida, where she died, and Chicago, her adopted hometown. Ceremonies in her memory were attended by thousands and at the funeral in Chicago, her eulogy was delivered by none other than Ida B. Wells, renowned activist and journalist.
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.
While Coleman did not achieve her dream of opening a flying school, her brief career inspired many others to pursue their dreams. Pictured is the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, organized by William J. Powell (far right), a successful owner of several automobile service stations in Chicago, to promote aviation awareness in the black community. Both men and women were welcome to apply.
This self-guided expedition will explore several women in aviation and aerospace through their own life stories and our artifacts. Using the aircraft and spacecraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, and our digital collection, we will present women, their place in history and their impact in aviation and aerospace.
Step back in time and learn about the history of women in aviation through their own life stories. From the first woman to earn her pilot’s license to the programmers who made the trip to the Moon possible, we celebrate the women of the past and look toward what will be achieved in the future.
This weekly learning guide includes videos, activities, and more resources to discuss pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman in your classroom.
Sudents will explore Bessie Coleman's legacy, her commitment to her community, and how they can support change in their community.