Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman license
June 15, 1921
Bessie Coleman Earns Her Pilot's License

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.

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After earning her license, Coleman returned to Chicago and got 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.

More about Barnstorming through Barriers
A newspaper front page reading "Bessie Coleman, Aviatrix, Killed."
April 30, 1926
Tragedy Strikes

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.  

More Stories You May Not Know About Coleman
Several people, men and women, some in flying gear, smile at the camera.
Her Continuing Legacy

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.

More About Coleman's Life and Legacy

Related Resources


For Early Learners

Join museum educator Ann Caspari will read an original story about the pioneering pilot Bessie Coleman, with sketches by museum educator Diane Kidd. After the story, Ann will lead us in a craft activity to make biplane models using paper towel tubes, paper, and tape.

This Learning Lab will provide you educational resource to take your Flights of Fancy experience to the next level, exploring air and space history with the young learners in your life. 

A brief poem about history making pilot Bessie Coleman, from author Reeve Lindbergh. 

Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, discusses her children's book about another trailblazing aviator: Bessie Coleman.

For All Ages

Get an introduction to Bessie Coleman's life, from making history by earning her pilots license to her untimely death, and meet other history-making women pilots.

This five-minute clip from a Smithsonian Channel documentary delves into Bessie Coleman's life, flights, and legacy. 

Curator Russ Lee answered your questions about Bessie Coleman in this 15 minute video

Online Exhibitions


Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega
Women in Aviation and Aerospace Self Guided Expedition

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.

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Women in Aviation and Space Family Day
Women in Aviation and Aerospace Virtual Breakout Room Challenge

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.

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For Educators

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman Weekly Learning Guide

This weekly learning guide includes videos, activities, and more resources to discuss pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman in your classroom. 

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Several people, men and women, some in flying gear, smile at the camera.
Conversation Kit

Sudents will explore Bessie Coleman's legacy, her commitment to her community, and how they can support change in their community.

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