Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was a civil aviator. She was the first African American female pilot and the first to hold an international pilot license.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Coleman moved from Atlanta, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she heard tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. They told stories about flying in the war, and Coleman started to fantasize about being a pilot. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from Jesse Binga (a banker) and the Defender, which capitalized on her flamboyant personality and her beauty to promote the newspaper, and to promote her cause.
Coleman took French language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but the first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September sailed for New York.
Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers.
In September 1921, she became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. “Queen Bess,” as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. Bessie Coleman was billed at shows as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).
But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt.
Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly,” wrote Doris Rich, “[Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”
Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her greatest dream—establishing a school for young, black aviators—but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream”. Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.
“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”
“I refused to take no for an answer.”
On April 30, 1926, Coleman, at the age of thirty-four, was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas, Texas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow. Her friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. Coleman did not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a dive; instead it spun. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 500 ft and died instantly when she hit the ground. William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.