Bessie Coleman

An Aviator

Synopsis

Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to earn a pilot's license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she taught herself French and moved to France, earning her license from France's well-known Caudron Brother's School of Aviation in just seven months. Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, earning a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. She remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.

Early Life

Born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, who both worked as sharecroppers. Her father, who was of Native American and African American descent, left the family in search of better opportunities in Oklahoma when Bessie was a child. Her mother did her best to support the family and the children contributed as soon as they were old enough.

At 12 years old, Coleman began attending the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas and, after graduating, embarked on a journey to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), where she completed only one term due to financial constraints.

In 1915, at 23 years old, Coleman moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. Not long after her move to Chicago, she began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation.

Chicago

In 1916 at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist, where she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. 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.[6]Coleman received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.[7]
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France

Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."[8] On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African-American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license, and the first person of African-American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.
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Orlando

In the 1920s, in Orlando on a speaking tour, she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street in the neighborhood of Parramore. A local street was renamed "Bessie Coleman" Street in her honor in 2013. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and Bessie opened a beauty shop in Orlando to earn extra money to buy her own plane.[9]

Breaking Barriers

In 1922, a time of both gender and racial discrimination, Coleman broke barriers and became the world's first black woman to earn a pilot's license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she took it upon herself to learn French and move to France to achieve her goal. After only seven months, Coleman earned her license from France's well known Caudron Brother's School of Aviation.

Though she wanted to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. In 1922, hers was the first public flight by an African- American woman in America.

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Death

Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show which sent her plummeting to her death. She was only 34 years old.

Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.