Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a licensed pilot. She became one of the most famous African American women in aviation history. Although, Coleman had to endure many racial and gender discriminations in early 20-th century America, she overcame these issues in order to become the woman that we know her as today.
Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, she was one of 13 children. Similar to most African American families living in the deep south in the early 20-th century, the Coleman family had to face much discrimination, segregation, and racial violence. These hardships led Bessie’s father to move to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. Bessie’s mother did not want to live on an Indian reservation and decided to remain in Texas with Bessie and several of her sisters.
Bessie was a highly motivated individual. Although she worked long hours, she still found time to educate herself by borrowing books from a local library. After high school, she went on to study at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. However, Bessie could only attend one semester because of limited finances.
In 1915, Bessie moved to Chicago with two of her brothers. She attended beauty school, and started working as a manicurist in a local barbershop. Bessie first considered becoming a pilot after reading about aviation and watching newsreels about flight. However, Bessie’s real motivation was her brother’s constant teasing. According to John, Bessie would never be able to fly airplanes, this gave Bessie the final push she needed to start pursuing her pilot’s license. She began applying to flight schools all over the United States, but because she was both a female and an African American, no one would accept her.
It wasn’t long after that Bessie met Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, a well-known African American newspaper. He encouraged Coleman to save some money and move to France, and obtain her pilot’s license there. Coleman decided to take Abbott’s advice. She began working as a manager of a chili parlor and started learning how to speak French at night. In November 1920 with help from Abbott and friends, Bessie took her savings and sailed for France.
Coleman attended the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. On June 15, 1921, Coleman obtained her pilot’s license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale after only seven months. After additional training, Coleman finally returned to the United States. On September 3, 1922, Bessie flew in her first air show at Glenn Curtiss Field in Garden City, New York. The show sponsored by Abbott was a promotional tool to spotlight Coleman’s talents.
Bessie became a celebrity, she began touring the country giving exhibitions, flight lessons, and lectures. She strongly advocated African Americans and women to learn to fly. In February 1923, Coleman suffered her first major accident. She was preparing for an exhibition in Los Angeles, when her Jenny airplane’s engine unexpectedly stalled and she crashed. Coleman was knocked unconscious, and received a broken leg, some cracked ribs, and multiple cuts on her face. It took her over a year to recover.
Nevertheless, in 1925, Coleman started performing full time again. She amazed thousands as she “barrell-rolled” and “looped-the-loop” over Houston’s Aerial Transport Field on June 19, 1925. Many whites attended also, although they watched from separate segregated bleachers.
Coleman’s aviation career came to a devastating end in April 1926. Coleman was riding in the passenger seat of her “Jenny” airplane, and at the time was not wearing a seat-belt so that she could lean over the edge of the cockpit and find potential parachute landing spots. The plane suddenly dropped into a steep nosedive and flipped over, Coleman’s mechanic was piloting the aircraft, and lost control because of a loose wrench that jammed the plane’s instruments.
Despite her short career, Coleman’s impact on aviation history will always be remembered. She strongly endured the challenges of the early 20th century racial discrimination as well as, the stereotypes on the inabilities of women. Coleman proved that people did not have to allow gender or skin color to hinder them from becoming successful.
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