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Bessie Coleman: Barnstorming Through Barriers

Posted on Fri, June 15, 2018
  • by: Gabrielle Barone, Digital Experiences intern
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While Bessie Coleman never realized her dream of opening a flight school for African American pilots, her legacy as the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license has impacted and inspired flight students for decades.

In a time before women were supposed to fly airplanes, before Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, Coleman was flying loops through multiple glass ceilings. She was born in Texas in 1892 and was one of 13 children born to parents who were sharecroppers.

Coleman opened up the skies for future women to pursue their dreams.

As an African American woman (in a time more than 20 years before the all-male Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies during World War II), getting a pilot’s license in the United States proved impossible. So, 24-year-old Coleman left her job as a manicurist in Chicago to get her flying certification in France.

Coleman received her flying license on June 15, 1921—making headlines as the first African American female to earn a pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Bessie Coleman license

Bessie Coleman was awarded her pilot’s license in 1921 by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She trained in France because no American flight school would accept her as a student.

In 1921, 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.

Coleman’s goal was to save enough money from her job in order to open a flight school for African American students.  In order to achieve this, she opened a beauty parlor to try to save additional money.

In 1923, Coleman’s aircraft crashed in Santa Monica during an exhibition, and she sustained serious injuries. She recovered, but it was an unfortunate foreshadowing of things to come.

Before she could open her flight school, Coleman died in an airplane crash on April 30, 1926. During practice for a May Day celebration, Coleman’s publicity agent and mechanic, William Will, was piloting their biplane, which flipped over and nose-dived. Coleman died after she was thrown from the aircraft.

Though Coleman never saw the desegregation of American society or the formation of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for women in aviation founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929, she opened up the skies for future women to pursue their dreams.

Bessie Coleman Aero Club; William Powell

William J. Powell (far right), a successful owner of several automobile service stations in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles to learn to fly. By the early 1930s Powell had organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club to promote aviation awareness in the black community. Both men and women were welcome to apply. Powell became a talented visionary and promoter of black involvement in aviation.

A U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1995 in Coleman’s honor, and in Chicago on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over her grave and leave flowers. Coleman has a place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, alongside pilots like Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. And, in a fitting tribute to Coleman’s dream, pilot William Powell began the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929, to promote aviation for African American men and women.