Bessie Coleman: The First African American to Obtain an International Pilot’s License

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

If you happen to be traveling through Orlando International Airport this February, keep an eye out for the Bessie Coleman display. Likewise, if you stumble upon a new quarter with a female pilot on it, it’s probably the hero aviator. She was the first African American to ever hold an international pilot’s license, the first Black woman, and the first Native American to have any kind of pilot’s license. She broke barriers for many and stood up for desegregation when it was dangerous to do so, at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Bessie Coleman Was Alive Decades Prior to the Civil Rights Act

Portrait of aviatrix Bessie Coleman wearing flying helmet and goggles, circa 1920s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Bessie Coleman was born at the end of the 19th century on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her mother was Susan Coleman, an African American, and George Coleman, an African American of Cherokee descent. Her father worked as a sharecropper and her mother worked as a maid. Bessie had 12 siblings, 9 who were older, although only nine of the Coleman siblings lived past childhood.

Just miles away from Atlanta was the town of Paris, where regular lynchings occurred between 1890 and 1920. It was a terribly difficult era for people of color as they were segregated, banned from voting, terrorized, murdered, and otherwise treated as subhuman. Nonetheless, Bessie persevered. She walked four miles to and from school every day beginning at age six and kept enough faith in herself to find her passion.

After her father moved to Oklahoma in 1901 because it was less discriminatory, Bessie stayed behind with her mother and siblings. She helped her mom wash laundry and pick cotton and eventually saved enough money to go to college at age 18. She moved to Langston, Oklahoma, to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University, which is now Langston University. However, due to the cost of school, Bessie dropped out after a single semester.

Bessie’s Brothers Told Her They Saw French Women Flying Planes in the War

She then moved to Chicago and lived with her brothers at age 23. She went to beauty school to become a manicurist while her brothers were drafted into World War I. When they returned, they had many stories about French female pilots. The story goes that her brother John would tease Bessie about French superiority, due to the fact that their women could be pilots, but African American women could not. All the talk about flying gave Bessie a dream: to become a pilot.

Bessie Coleman began applying to flight school after flight school, but they all turned her down. She was a woman but more importantly at the time, she was a person of color. While there were some other female pilots, they were affluent and white. Bessie’s social status at the time solidly locked her out of all of the country’s pilot schools.

One day, she met African American millionaire Robert Abbott, a lawyer, and the founder of The Chicago Defender newspaper. He had come in as a patron to the barber shop where she worked. He told her she should apply to pilot schools in Europe, where she would be more welcome. Abbott arranged for his newspaper and a banker named Jesse Binga to financially back her.

She Took Night Classes to Learn French So She Could Apply Abroad

But simply applying to schools abroad had its own set of problems. Bessie wanted to go to France and that meant she needed to apply in French. She began taking French lessons in the evening. The Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation accepted Bessie and she moved to Le Crotoy, France on November 20, 1920.

While in school, Bessie was taught in a 27-foot biplane that had a history of failure and at one point witnessed another student die in a crash. However, the brave woman continued to follow her dreams and complete her courses. On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received an international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Coleman Returned to the United States and Was an Instant Sensation

Pilot and aviator Bessie Coleman, circa 1920. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Bessie returned to the United States that September, where she was featured on newspapers everywhere. Not only was she a woman with an international pilot’s license, but she was Black and Native American. Boundaries were smashed and she began performing in air shows everywhere. She was hailed as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race” by the Air Service News. At one point she was invited to an all-Black musical as a guest of honor and given a standing ovation by black and white people in the audience.

Not a fearful bone in her body, Bessie became known for her “heart-thrilling stunts” in the air. She would draw figure-8s and do loop-the-loops. She survived a plane crash in February 1923 when the plane’s engine suddenly failed. Bessie suffered a broken leg and ribs but healed and returned to flying in 1925. Thousands of people would gather to watch her.

Bessie Stood Up for Equal Rights Everywhere She Flew

Notably, Bessie Coleman used her fame to help bring attention to segregation. When she was asked to perform at venues, she would only do so if they allowed Blacks to enter. She would not perform for any business or locale that discriminated against Black people.

Bessie also gave inspirational speeches everywhere she went. Speaking in churches, schools, and theaters, she spoke to other women and African Americans about learning how to fly. She would play video recordings of herself doing her aerial stunts and was living proof of doing what she’d been told was impossible. She eventually saved enough money from her talks and shows to buy her own plane, a Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine.

Bessie Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida, preparing for an air show when she took her last flight. It was April 30, 1926, and she and a Texan mechanic named William Willis were together and took off for a test run in the sky. Willis was flying while Bessie sat as passenger. Then tragedy struck. A wrench had somehow gotten loose and wedged itself in the plane’s engine. The plane was open, meaning that it had no roof, and Bessie wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. The plane flipped over, and she fell out, falling 3,000 feet to her death. Willis remained in the plane but died when it crashed. Bessie Coleman was just 34 years old.

Her Legacy Lives on and Continues to Inspire People Everywhere

Despite her relatively short career, Bessie Coleman’s story began at her birth. Born into a world where she was told she could never do so many things simply because of the color of her skin and her gender, she proved everyone wrong. She inspired women and people of color everywhere and continues to do so to this very day.

Ida B Wells-Barnett herself said a eulogy at Bessie Coleman’s funeral. The Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual tradition in 1931 of flying over her grave every year. An elementary school in Corvallis, Oregon renamed itself in honor of the pilot. The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority has established an exhibit honoring her at the Orlando International Airport during Black History Month. Barbie even released a special Bessie Coleman Barbie doll on January 26, 2023, to honor her birthday and Black History Month. The U.S. mint released a special edition quarter with Bessie’s face on it in January 2023 as part of the American Women’s Quarters program. And the U.S. postal service has made a special edition stamp of Bessie, too.

Although Bessie Coleman never had any children, she was survived by her siblings’ descendants. Her great-niece, Gigi Coleman, founded the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars program. It teaches students about STEM as well as aeronautic careers and history, honoring Bessie and other historical figures who have helped bring the world of flight to where it is today.

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