On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received the first pilot’s license issued to an African American woman and to a Native American woman. The license was issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the aviation licensing body of Europe. In doing so, Coleman, a bravely independent and determined woman, sought to fulfill her mother’s hope for her children: “to amount to something.” In this Jim Crow era, when racism and segregation were both widespread and dictated by law, Coleman’s personal drive and accomplishments are truly astounding. Aviation was new to everyone in the early 1920s as air circuses introduced it to the public via exhibitions and rides. People were not yet traveling by air. Coleman's remarkable journey reflects the racist and sexist struggles many faced across the nation, and worldwide, in the 1920s—both in the air and on the ground.
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892—one of 13 children to an African American mother and father (he was also part Native American). They lived on a small farm outside of Waxahachie, Texas, where her father was a day laborer and her mother a domestic worker in a white family home. In 1901, when she was nine, her father left the family for more opportunity (with his Native American heritage) in Oklahoma. The older children started joining the Great Migration north to Chicago and Coleman arrived there in 1915, later followed by her mother and the rest of the family. When Coleman was 27 years old, she found herself at a personal crossroads in 1920s segregated Chicago, seeking opportunities beyond her current job as a manicurist in beauty salons. When her brother, a World War I veteran, taunted her about her future with stories of French women flyers she took it as a challenge: “That’s it… You just called it for me!” She, like many others, had followed press coverage of World War I aviation heroes, but hearing about these French female pilots lit a spark. However, in the United States, Black men were not welcome in aviation, let alone Black women. Determined, even after white pilots refused to give her instruction, Coleman sought advice from Robert Abbot, the publisher of the influential Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, and a constant advocate for the inclusion of people of color in American society. Sensing her commitment, and the resulting publicity if she succeeded, he advised her to learn French and seek training in France where Black people experienced more respect and opportunity than they did in the United States.
Accordingly, Coleman enrolled in French lessons, and through jobs, family, and friends, saved enough money to journey to Paris. 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. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 dual-controlled trainer and earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921. Ten months after she moved to Paris, she sailed home, pilot’s license in hand. Though acknowledged by the press in New York City and the Chicago Defender, she quickly determined that more training was needed to safely perform stunts and someday instruct at her own flight school, which was her dream. Coleman returned to Europe to train with veteran war pilots in France and Germany.
On September 3, 1922, in a borrowed Curtiss JN-4D Jenny at Curtiss Field on Long Island, Coleman made the first public flight by a Black woman in the United States. It was followed by 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 and film opportunities did not pan out, so in early 1923, she went to California, lured by an advertising venture with Coast Tire and Rubber of Oakland, hoping to break into barnstorming (pilots of the era earned a marginal living by joining aerial circuses or flying from town to town putting on exhibitions and giving rides in biplanes like the Curtiss Jenny).
Coleman’s first public flight in California ended in disaster when, on February 4, 1923, the engine in her newly purchased ($400) military surplus Curtiss Jenny quit on takeoff at 300 feet, and crashed. She spent three months in the hospital. Coleman managed one flight, billed as “the only colored aviatrix in the world,” in Columbus, Ohio, later that year, and then spent a year and a half saving money. By May 1925, she was in Houston for the first of a multi-city tour including her childhood home of Waxahachie, Texas. Large integrated crowds watched her perform loops, figure-eights, and parachute jumps (if she couldn’t find anyone else to do it) and paid for short rides in her borrowed plane. Black audiences, especially women, enjoyed her shows and talks, and offered hospitality in the form of rooms and meals. This community support was essential for her personal safety as a Black woman flying in a segregated atmosphere where a forced landing could be catastrophic. She established herself as a real barnstormer and popular speaker whose talks often paid more than her flying. Coleman told audiences: “Did you know you’ve never lived until you have flown?”
Coleman was ever closer to her long-standing goal of opening a flight school for all. Then, on April 30, 1926, at Paxon Field in Jacksonville, Florida, disaster struck as she went up for a practice flight in her newly purchased Jenny that her mechanic, William Wills, had just flown in from Texas. Wills piloted the plane as she surveyed the ground for a suitable parachute landing site for the next day’s show. She did not buckle her seat belt because it prevented her from looking over the side the plane. Cruising at 3,500 feet about ten minutes into the flight, the Curtiss Jenny biplane accelerated and then suddenly went into a nosedive and tailspin, flipping over. Coleman was thrown from the aircraft and plunged to her death; Wills crashed with the plane and was also killed. Authorities found that a loose wrench had become lodged in the control gears, preventing Wills from righting the aircraft. Though the wrench should have been secured, or not even in the plane, the cause was determined to be accidental. Rumors of sabotage could not be stopped or corroborated. It was a tragic but not uncommon accident in the heyday of barnstorming—at the time aircraft safety was being addressed by Congress with the Air Commerce Act of 1926 that mandated the regulation of pilots and aircraft.
Coleman steadfastly pursued her dream and lived her own independent, unorthodox life–including firing male managers and refusing movie roles she felt were demeaning, reportedly saying “No Uncle Tom stuff for me,” in reference to playing a subservient Black woman. Like her contemporary Amelia Earhart, Coleman was not afraid to be different. She was a fearless personality who defied odds and stepped on toes to claim her space as an aviator. Coleman led a difficult and complicated life, wonderfully detailed in Doris Rich’s definitive biography Queen Bess Daredevil Aviatrix.
“We must have aviators,” Coleman firmly believed, “if we are to keep up with the times.” After her death, others took up her cause. William Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Flying Club in 1930s Los Angeles with exhibitions and demonstration flights, and, through his Black Wings book and in film, presented aviation as a pathway to integration. Powell put together the first Black female air show team, the Blackbirds; though short-lived, their mere presence was astonishing. In Chicago, the 1930s Challenger Air Pilots Association, founded by Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson, sponsored annual memorial flights over “Brave Bessie’s” grave. Two vibrant women anchored the group as well: Janet Bragg, a nurse with a steady income, learned mechanics at Coffey’s aviation school, bought the Association’s first airplane, and became the first African American woman to earn a Commercial pilot license. Willa Brown sought publicity from the Chicago Defender, the newspaper whose publisher supported Coleman and was a Civil Air Patrol officer. Over the years, countless clubs, organizations, and scholarships have honored Coleman’s legacy and invoked her spirit while encouraging participation and equality in aviation and aerospace.
On this centennial of Bessie Coleman’s pioneering achievement, we reflect on her enduring legacy. We honor the consequences of one woman’s resilience in pursing her to dream to fly, against overwhelming odds.