“The air is the only place free from prejudices.” – Bessie Coleman
Known to many as Queen Bess, aviator Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a pilot. During a time when African Americans faced segregation and the Jim Crow laws, Bessie Coleman not only fought against gender stereotypes, but racism as well.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her parents were both sharecroppers and Bessie spent her early years picking cotton with her mother. She attended school in a one room schoolhouse before attending the Oklahoma Colored Agriculture and Normal University (now known as Langston University) for one year. She then moved to Chicago where she worked in a salon.
Inspired by pilots in WWI, Bessie decided that she wanted to follow in their footsteps and become an aviator. She applied to aviation schools in the United States but was denied due to her race and gender. However, this didn’t stop Bessie from pursuing her dream. She taught herself French before going to France and attending Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. In only 7 months, she earned her international pilot’s license and a legend was born.
Back in the United States, Bessie Coleman became the first female African American pilot to fly publicly. She performed incredible stunts during air shows, earning her the title of “Queen Bess.” She gained fame for these airshows and only agreed to perform in the shows were desegregated and if whites and blacks alike entered and exited through the same gate. During these events, Bessie Coleman performed and lectured to raise money to open an aviation school for African Americans.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman was preparing for an airshow the following day, when she died in a terrible accident. During a test flight with her mechanic, Bessie fell from the plane when a wrench caught in the plane’s control gears.Her funeral was attended by more than 15,000 people in Chicago.
During her short life, Bessie Coleman broke barriers by refusing to take no for an answer. Her determination inspired people around the world. Her dream of opening a flying school for African Americans was realized in 1929, when the Bessie Coleman Aero Club opened. The influence she had was wide-spread, inspiring the Tuskegee Airmen, the Five Blackbirds, and other African American Flying groups.
“Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926) .” PBS, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flygirls/peopleevents/pandeAMEX02.html.
Biography.com Editors. “Bessie Coleman Biography .” The Biography.com Website , A&E Television Networks , 23 Jan. 2015, www.biography.com/people/bessie-coleman-36928.
“Coleman, Bessie.” National Aviation Hall of Fame, http://www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/coleman-bessie/.
“Who Was Bessie Coleman and Why Does She Still Matter?” | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 26 Jan. 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/01/bessie-coleman-matter-170126114158228.html.