Lessons on early aviation with bessie coleman

Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie ColemanLessons on Early Aviation with Bessie ColemanPhoto: National Air and Space Museum (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsNameBessie ColemanBirth DateJanuary 26, 1892Death DateApril 30, 1926Place of BirthAtlanta, TexasPlace of DeathJacksonville, FloridaNicknameBrave BessieQueen Bess

  • Who Was Bessie Coleman?
  • Cite This Page

In 1922, aviator Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman to stage a public flight in America. Her high-flying skills always wowed her audience.

Bessie Coleman was an American aviator and 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, Family and Education

Bessie was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas. She's 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. After graduating, she 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.

Bessie Coleman

Photo: A+E Networks

First Black Woman Aviator

In 1921, 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, she became the first African American woman in America to make a public flight.


On April 30, 1926, Coleman was tragically killed at only 34 years old when an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show sent her plummeting to her death. Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!

Diminutive television star Gary Coleman made “What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?” a household catch-phrase in the 1980s.

Jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith's powerful, soulful voice won her countless fans and earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.”

Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911–1956) was named “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950 for her skills in basketball, track & field and golf.

Casey Jones was a railroad engineer known for his speed who died in 1900, when he collided with another train. He was immortalized as an American folk hero with the release of Wallace Saunders's song “The Ballad of Casey Jones.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was a scholar and minister who led the civil rights movement. After his assassination, he was memorialized by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

High school teacher Christa McAuliffe was the first American civilian selected to go into space. She died in the explosion of the space shuttle 'Challenger' in 1986.

Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance and author of the masterwork 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'

Anna Nicole Smith gained early fame as a model for Guess and 'Playboy' magazine, and later became known for her marriage to 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II.

Douglas MacArthur was an American general best known for his command of Allied forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Lessons in Black History – Bessie Coleman and Willa Brown

February 18, 2019 / David F. Walker /

Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie Coleman

BESSIE COLEMAN and WILLA BROWN – Two pioneering aviators, the life stories of both Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (above) and Willa Brown (below) define courage and tenacity.

Coleman was born to sharecropper parents—the tenth of thirteen children—and dreamed of a better life. She moved to Chicago in 1915, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop, where tales of fighter pilots in World War I inspired her to learn to fly a plane.

With no one in the United States willing to teach her, she learned French, and journeyed to Paris in 1920, where she studied aviation at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Eventually, she became the first African-American woman to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation pilot’s license. Willa Brown had been greatly influenced by Bessie Coleman, and began flying in 1934.

See also:  "variety" versus "varietal"

She became the first African-American woman to get a commercial pilot’s license. Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America and the Coffey School of Aeronautics, both of which helped to train African-American pilots, many of whom would go on to become the 99th Pursuit Squadron of World War II, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie Coleman

Also check out my work on Amazon, Comixology, or IMDB.

© 2019 David F. Walker. All Rights Reserved. |  Admin  |  Site by BlackPDX

© 2019 David F. Walker. All Rights Reserved. |  Admin

Site by BlackPDX

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This biography of Bessie Coleman was compiled by Thelma Rudd

Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie Coleman On February 3, 1926, three months before her fatal fall, Bessie Coleman wrote to film producer, R. E. Norman requesting that her life be put into a film titled, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. She wanted to set in motion a continuum of not just her legacy, but of those who came before and after here. She did not live to see her request on film. Although there have been a few attempts, to date no motion picture film has been produced about this energetic, patriotic American woman who in the early 1920s used Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) via the aero plane to promote equal rights and civil rights.

Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1893, in Atlanta, Texas, one of thirteen children. Her mother was black and her father was of American Indian and black descent. She was still a toddler when the family moved to Waxahachie, a small town thirty miles south of Dallas and she was only seven when in 1900 her father returned to Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory.

Being Indian in Texas was more dangerous than being “colored”. Coleman's mother, Susan Coleman, decided to stay in Waxahachie to raise the family as best she could. The children helped by picking cotton from late November into December of every year and the girls, as soon as they were old enough, helped with the washing their mother took in to make ends meet.

Just a few years later, December 1903, the Wright Brothers made the first sustained flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle at Kitty Hawk. Poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar was their friend and classmate. Their flight was to be a pivotal event in Coleman's life.

Because she was born with a drive to better herself, Coleman was an avid reader. Her mother ensured that the Coleman children made good use of the traveling library that came through two or three times a year.

Bessie Coleman

American aviator

Bessie ColemanColeman in 1923Born(1892-01-26)January 26, 1892Atlanta, Texas, U.S.Died(1926-04-30)April 30, 1926 (age 34)Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.Burial placeLincoln Cemetery, Cook County, IllinoisNationalityAmericanOther namesQueen BessBrave BessieElizabethOccupationPilotKnown forbeing an AviatorSpouse(s)Claude Glenn (1917) separated soon after[1]Parent(s)George and Susan Coleman

Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926)[2] was an early American civil aviator. She was the first woman of African-American descent, and also the first of Native-American descent, to hold a pilot license.[3][4][5][6] She earned her pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921,[4][5][7] and was the first black person to earn an international pilot's license.[8]

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman went into the cotton fields at a young age while also studying in a small segregated school. She went on to attend one term of college at Langston University.

She developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight training opportunities in the United States, so she saved up money and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.

She then became a high profile pilot in notoriously dangerous air shows in the United States. She was popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie,[9] and she hoped to start a school for African-American fliers.

Coleman died in a plane crash in 1926 while testing a new aircraft. Her pioneering role was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African-American and Native American communities.

Early life

Bessie Coleman (sometimes, Elizabeth)[10] was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas,[8] the tenth of thirteen children of George Coleman, whose grandparents were Cherokee, and Susan Coleman, who was African American.[11][12] Nine of the children survived childhood, which was typical for the time.

[11] When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where they lived as sharecroppers.[12] Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at the age of six.[citation needed] She walked four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student.

[12] She completed her elementary education in that school.[12]

Every year, Coleman's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. In 1901, George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, as it was then called, to find better opportunities, but his wife and children did not follow.

At the age of 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now called Langston University).

See also:  New research reveals there are 4 separate species of giraffes

She completed one term before her money ran out and she returned home.[13]



At the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I.

She took a second job at a chili parlor to save money in hopes of becoming a pilot.[14] American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor blacks, so Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad.

[3] Abbot publicized Coleman's quest in his newspaper and she received financial sponsorship from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.[14]


Coleman's aviation license issued on June 15, 1921

Bessie Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz Language Schools 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 564 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.”[15] On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first black woman[8] and first Native American [16] to earn an aviation pilot's license and the first black person[8] and first Native American[16] to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.[8] 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 America. She became a media sensation when she returned to the U.S.


The air is the only place free from prejudices.
I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…

– Bessie Coleman [17]

With the age of commercial flight still a decade or more in the future, Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the then still early technology of airplanes 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 not find anyone 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.

She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.[15]

“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. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war.

She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I.

Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world's greatest woman flier”[18] and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.

[19] 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 the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve).[20]

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 aviatrix, 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. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.

Bessie Coleman, c.1922.

Committed to promoting aviation and combating racism, Coleman spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans. She absolutely refused to participate in aviation events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans.[21]

In the 1920s, in Orlando, Florida, on a speaking tour, she met the Rev.

See also:  Transitive and intransitive verbs

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 neighbourhood of Parramore.

A local street was renamed “Bessie Coleman” Street in her honour in 2013. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and Coleman opened a beauty shop in Orlando to earn extra money to buy her own plane.[22]

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 … [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”, wrote Doris Rich.[15]

It's tempting to draw parallels between me and Ms. Coleman . . .[but] I point to Bessie Coleman and say here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model for all humanity, the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.

– Mae Jemison (first African-American woman astronaut)[23]

Coleman would not live long enough to establish 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.

“[24] 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.[25]


On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow but had to make three forced landings along the way because the plane had been so poorly maintained.

[26] Upon learning this, Coleman's friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat.

She had not put on her seat belt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the Brendans.

About ten minutes into the flight, the plane unexpectedly went into a dive and then a spin at 3,000 feet above the ground. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground.

William Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane exploded and 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 jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.[15]

Funeral services were held in Florida before her body was sent back to Chicago. While there was little mention in most media, news of her death was widely carried in the African American press and 10,000 mourners attended her ceremonies in Chicago, which were led by activist Ida B. Wells.[10]


Bessie Coleman's portrait.

  • A public library in Chicago was named in Coleman's honor,[27] as are roads at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago,[28] Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California,[29] Tampa International Airport in Florida,[30] and at Germany's Frankfurt International Airport.[31] A memorial plaque has been placed by the Chicago Cultural Center at the location of her former home, 41st and King Drive in Chicago, and it is a tradition for African-American aviators to drop flowers during flyovers of her grave at Lincoln Cemetery.[32]
  • A roundabout leading to Nice Airport in the South of France was named after her in March 2016, and there are streets in Poitiers, and the 20th Arrondissement of Paris named after her.[33][34]
  • Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill, Texas is named for her.
  • Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived as a child is named in her honor.[35]
  • B. Coleman Aviation, a fixed-base operator based at Gary/Chicago International Airport, is named in her honor.[36]
  • Several Bessie Coleman Scholarship Awards have been established for high school seniors planning careers in aviation.
  • The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Coleman in 1995.[37][38] The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.
  • In 2001, Coleman was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[39]
  • In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.[40]

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.