Stunt-flyer Bessie Coleman was "a first"

Bessie Coleman
Tue, 1892-01-26

*Bessie Coleman was born on this date in 1892. She was an African American woman pilot and the first woman aviator and stunt-flier in the United States.

Elizabeth Coleman, later known as Bessie, hailed from Atlanta, Texas. After graduating from high school, Bessie had saved enough money to pay for only one semester at the Colored Agricultural Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (later Langston University). After that semester, Coleman left the University for Chicago where she became interested in the (then) new field of aviation. Determined to become a pilot, she quit her job and applied to various aeronautics schools in the U.S.

Because of racist and sexist policies, she was repeatedly rejected. With the encouragement of the founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, and with financial assistance from the founder and president of the Chicago’s Binga State Bank, Coleman took French language lessons and subsequently went to France to study aviation and obtain her pilot's license. She graduated in June 1921 from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, specializing in parachuting and stunt flying.

Coleman returned to America and her barnstorming achievements won acclaim from everyone that saw her flying exhibitions. For her daring stunts she became known as "Brave Bessie." She dreamed of opening an aviation training school for African-Americans. This goal was not met because of her untimely death at the age of 34, during a rehearsal for her show in Jacksonville, Florida in 1926.

Coleman is honored every Memorial Day by African American pilots who fly in formation above the Chicago Lincoln Cemetery, dropping wreaths on her grave.

Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

To become a Pilot

Person / name: 

Coleman, Bessie