Bessie Coleman: The First Black Female Pilot

Bessie Coleman was the first female African American (and Native American) pilot and she was a Civil Rights pioneer for future generations. January 26th, 2018 marks her 125th birthday. Learn more about this black aviatrix!

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Born in 1892, she was famous for becoming a pilot at a time when very few women and (almost) no African American women were flying planes. Coleman was known as one of the best barnstormers, or stunt pilots, in America. She was famous for performing tricks, like flying upside down, making loops and even walking or hanging onto her plane while it was in flight. Most famously, she also performed jumps from planes using early parachutes. Bessie is remembered for living an exciting life, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Early Life

She was born in a little town called Atlanta, in the state of Texas, to a Native American father and an African American mother. Her childhood wasn’t easy, she walked four miles every day to a one-room school that couldn’t afford paper and pencils. Her parents were sharecroppers; they operated under a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant (Bessie’s parents) to use a piece of land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of land. So, when Bessie wasn’t in school, she was often working in the cotton fields to help her parents bring in income. Growing up, Coleman swore to herself that she would find a way to make her life mean something… So she did.

I refused to take NO for an answer
— Bessie Coleman

Chicago: Moving to the Windy City

Coleman moved to Chicago, where her brothers were already living. They told her marvelous tales about French women flying planes in World War I and she wanted to do the same thing; but, flight schools barred blacks (from taking classes) and she was unable to convince any white pilots to teach her how to fly. 

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Instead of giving up, Bessie Coleman worked hard, so that she could learn French and could travel to Paris to learn to fly. Paris did allow women and blacks more rights at the time. So she did. She studied and she taught herself how to speak French. Once she mastered the language, Bessie then left the United States and she traveled to Europe. From there she made her way to France and then ultimately to Paris. 

Learning to Fly in Paris

Unlike the United States, she was able to find a pilot that was willing to teach her to fly. At the time of Bessie’s training, the only way for pilots to earn a living was through teaching people how to fly, through flight schools or by becoming stunt pilots who performed for crowds that paid for the show (only a small number of pilots were involved in the military during World War I. Planes were much more common in the military during World War II). 

Returning to the United States

Bessie returned to the United States and became one of the most famous stunt flyers to ever live. She even worked hard to help other black women learn to fly, but sadly, Coleman was killed while preparing for a parachute jump the day before a big show. Her legacy lives on today and the road to one of the busiest airports in the world, O’hare airport in Chicago, is even named after her. 

The air is the only place free from prejudice.
— Bessie Coleman

She died young, but her willingness to be a Civil Rights pioneer will live on forever. 

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Bryant HoltComment