One hundred years ago, on June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman, a Black woman with Native American heritage, made history when she earned her pilot’s license, becoming the first African American woman to do so. While her life and her flying career was tragically cut short, her influence and impact continue to this day.
Coleman’s life and legacy aren’t just limited to aviation. In the air and on the ground, she made history, changed history, and witnessed history. Here are five things you might not have known about Coleman that give you a window into the barrier breaking, kick butt, multifaceted woman she was.
A Sibling Challenge
Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children, and she grew up on a small farm outside of Waxahachie, Texas. The older children joined the Great Migration north to Chicago and Bessie arrived there in 1915, later followed by her mother and the rest of the family. Her path to aviation began with a taunt from her brother. After her brother John returned from World War I, he would tease his sister about the opportunities available for women in France that wouldn’t be available for her as a Black woman in the United States. When he said that African American women wouldn’t be able to fly, she took that as a challenge and replied “That’s it! You just called it for me.” After being told “no” by pilots in the U.S., she learned French and moved to France to achieve her dream (and prove her brother wrong in the process).
Manicurist on the Move
Before Coleman went to France to earn her pilot’s license, she worked as a manicurist in Chicago. In fact, she even won a contest in 1916 that declared her the best manicurist in Black Chicago. While not Coleman’s dream job, work as a manicurist or beautician was an important source of financial freedom and opportunity for many African American women in the early 1900s.
Beauty schools, like the Burnham School of Beauty Culture where Coleman trained, gave Black women access to professional training for gainful employment in Jim Crow America. For some, work as a beautician led to owning their own business and becoming an influential figure in their communities. In the case of fellow Chicagoan, Marjorie Steward Joyner beauty school led to owning her own business, becoming vice president of a company worth millions, and making waves—literally—by inventing a wave making machine and figuratively as an advisor to the Democratic National Committee.
For Coleman, the Burnham School of Beauty and Culture was the first step in a journey that showed her the sky was not the limit. As a manicurist, she heard stories of World War I pilots that inspired her and was able to save money for her training.
Short-Lived Film Career
Having gained attention for her barnstorming, Bessie Coleman was offered a leading role in a film called Shadow and Sunshine. She initially accepted the part, to great excitement in the press, especially because the film was to be produced by the African American Seminole Film Company and over 100 Black extras were to be hired. However, when she discovered that the movie began with her appearing in rags, Coleman announced, “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!” and turned down the role. While Coleman was standing by her principles, this decision drew negative reactions, ending her film career before it even began and impacting her ability to book appearances flying at African American fairs.
A Continuing Impact After Death
Following her death at age 34, Bessie Coleman was deeply mourned in the African American community. The headline of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, read “BESSIE COLEMAN, AVIATRIX KILLED.” 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, already renowned for her activism and journalism.
However, many in white America barely took notice. The Florida Times Union covered the May Day celebrations and briefly mentioned the death of Coleman and Wills. A photo collage under the subheading “Airplane Crashes Two Killed – Fairfield May Day Celebration Held Last Night Proves Big Success,” and featured eight pictures of the festivities and one picture of the wreckage—all side by side. Coleman’s obituary didn’t appear in the New York Times until 2019, part of their “Overlooked” series.
Reaching the Stars
When Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to go to space, launched on her first spaceflight, she carried Bessie Coleman’s picture with her. In an afterword to a book about Coleman, Jemison explained she was “embarrassed and saddened that I did not learn of her until my spaceflight beckoned on the horizon... I wished I had known her while I was growing up, but then again I think she was there with me all the time.” Jemison was careful to avoid comparisons between herself and Coleman, commenting instead: “It's tempting to draw parallels between me and Ms. Coleman... [but] I point to Bessie Coleman and say here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model for all humanity, the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.”