Fly High with Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was an early American civil aviator. She was the first African-American woman and the first Native-American to hold a pilot license. At a time when women of color were not expected to accomplish aviation feats, she broke barriers for women AND people of color. She was known for performing harrowing and death-defying flying tricks under nicknames like “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess.” She wanted to encourage African Americans and women to achieve and surpass their dreams. Although her career ended in a horrific plane crash, her legacy continues to be a global inspiration.
“I refuse to take no for an answer.” – Bessie Coleman
As with many of our Black History Month pioneers, she came from a meager background and chose to relentlessly pursue her dreams. She worked hard, and her work was not just about her. She always wanted to give back. Her goals were to benefit other African Americans and women.
- Personal Life – Bessie Coleman had twelve brothers and sisters, and she was born born on January 26, 1892. She was the daughter of an African American maid and sharecropper. By the age of eighteen, she saved enough money to attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University). She went to live in Chicago and became a manicurist. Her brothers came back from World War I with stories about their time in France. They told her that French women were allowed to fly planes. African American publisher Robert Abbott encouraged her to move to France and learn to fly.
“If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.” – Bessie Coleman
- Professional Life – She earned her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921. Bessie Coleman’s dream was to own her own plane and open a flight school. She gave speeches and showed films of her in churches, theaters and schools to help her earn money. She refused to speak in any segregated venues. She performed the first public flight by an African American in 1922, and she became famous for doing “loop-the-loops” in the shape of an “8.” She became very popular in the United States, Bessie began touring the country giving flying lessons. After 2 years into her flying career, she suffered he first major airplane accident. She didn’t suffer any major injuries, and her dangerous career resumed in 1925.
- Death – In April 1926, Bessie Coleman took a test flight with a mechanic in Jacksonville, FL. He was piloting the plane, and she sat in the passenger seat. At 3000 feet a loose wrench got stuck in the engine, and the plane flipped over. Seatbelts were not standard, and planes at that time a roof or any covering. Bessie Coleman fell to her death, and the plane crashed close to her body.
The United States Postal Service named a postage stamp after her in 1995, and she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006. Several schools, roads and airports bear her name. Bessie Coleman has inspired aviators across the globe, and she is an inspiration to people who want to accomplish their dreams. Her belief in never taking no for answer propelled her to reach for the sky and touch the clouds.