10 Facts About Aviation Pioneer Bessie Coleman | History Hit

10 Facts About Aviation Pioneer Bessie Coleman

Amy Irvine

12 Jul 2023
Bessie Coleman and her plane in 1922
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Bessie Coleman broke barriers and shattered stereotypes as an aviation pioneer in the early 20th century, overcoming racial and gender discrimination to become the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s licence.

Her remarkable achievements as an aviation pioneer paved the way for countless African American women and revolutionised the field of aviation. Through her unwavering determination and refusal to accept racial and gender discrimination, she broke barriers, inspiring future generations.

Here are 10 facts about Bessie Coleman, America’s first black female pilot.

1. She was one of 13 siblings

Bessie Coleman was born on 26 January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of 13 children. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid, and her father George Coleman was a sharecropper of mixed Native American and African American descent. Her family was poverty-stricken, and Coleman grew up helping her mother pick cotton and wash laundry to earn extra money. Her large family helped shape her character, instilling a strong work ethic and sense of determination, supporting her throughout her life.

After completing her education in a one-room schoolhouse, she had saved enough money to attend the ‘Colored Agricultural and Normal University’ in Oklahoma, but dropped out after only one semester, no longer able to afford tuition. In 1915, aged 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers.

2. She was inspired by World War One pilots

Coleman’s brothers served in the military during World War One, and came home with stories of their time in France. One brother, John, teased her because French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes while in America, Coleman could not.

These stories, along with other news of pilots in the war, led her to develop a deep fascination with aviation, and inspired her to become a pilot. 

Learn who is considered the true father of the RAF, why a flag must be evacuated in the event of a fire and why there are two portraits of World War One German flying aces in the college library.
Watch Now

3. She achieved her pilot licence in France

In her quest to obtain a pilot’s licence, Coleman applied to several American flight schools, but was denied admission due to racial and gender discrimination. Few American women of any race had pilot’s licenses at that time, and those who did were white and tended to be rich.

Coleman worked odd jobs to support herself, and after attending the Burnham School of Beauty Culture became a manicurist in a local barbershop. Here she met Robert Abbott, a famous African American newspaper publisher and one of the first African American millionaires. He encouraged her to pursue a career in aviation and advised her to move to France where she could learn how to fly. (He would help fund her training.)

As her application to flight schools needed to be written in French, she took French classes at night at a Berlitz school. Finally, Coleman was accepted at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, and set-off for northern France on 20 November 1920.

After rigorous training and dedication, Coleman earned her international pilot’s licence on 15 June 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, making history as the first African American woman pilot. She then returned to the US, becoming an overnight celebrity.

Bessie Coleman’s pilot license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

4. She dreamt of opening a flight school

Coleman’s dream was to own a plane and open her own flight school where young black aviators could receive training and pursue their dreams. She was determined to share her passion for aviation with others, particularly aspiring African American pilots.

Her hard work later helped her to save up enough money to buy her own plane, a Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine.

5. She wowed audiences with her aerial acrobatics

In 1922, Coleman performed the first public flight by an African American woman. In the early days of aviation, barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment, with pilots performing aerial stunts and tricks to crowds of people. As an accomplished pilot, Bessie Coleman joined a renowned group of barnstormers, travelling across America giving flight lessons and performing in air shows and exhibitions.

She was famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” in her airplane, wowing audiences with her skilled aerial manoeuvres and fearless stunts which showcased her remarkable talent. Her skills fascinated people and she gained fame in both America and Europe, breaking down racial barriers. 

In February 1923, her airplane engine stopped working mid-flight and she crashed. Despite being badly hurt (suffering a broken leg, cracked ribs, and cuts on her face), the accident did not deter her, and she went back to performing dangerous air tricks in 1925.

Left: Bessie Coleman in 24 January 1923. Right: Bessie Coleman in the Woodard Studio, Chicago, 1925.

Image Credit: Left: Wikimedia Commons / George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images / Public Domain. Right: Picryl / New York Public Library / Public Domain.

6. Her nickname was “Queen Bess”

Bessie Coleman gained widespread recognition and admiration during her career, captivating audiences with her daring aerial stunts and courageous performances. This led to her being nicknamed “Queen Bess” by her fans, reflecting her status as a pioneering role model and symbol of inspiration for African Americans and women around the world.

Other nicknames included “Brave Bessie”, and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”.

7. She refused to perform in segregated venues

Coleman also gave speeches and showed films of her air tricks at churches, theatres, and schools to earn money, encouraging African Americans and women to learn how to fly. Coleman used her prominent position in the aviation world to advocate for racial equality, refusing to perform at segregated venues.

Coleman’s stance sometimes led to difficulties in finding work, but she remained steadfast in her principles, refusing to compromise her beliefs. Her determination and refusal to perform in segregated air shows served as a powerful example to others, and was an important part of her legacy.

8. She died during an air show rehearsal

On 30 April 1926, Bessie Coleman’s life was cut tragically short when her plane, piloted by mechanic William Wills with Coleman in the test seat, crashed while attempting an aerial stunt during a rehearsal for an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt, and at the time, airplanes did not have a roof. Thus when the plane flipped over Coleman fell out of the open plane. Wills crashed the aircraft a few feet away, with the accident claiming both their lives.

Coleman was 34 years old. Around 10,000 mourners paid their respects, filing past her coffin in Chicago South’s Side at her funeral, and famous activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett delivered the eulogy.

9. There are numerous awards and memorials in her honour

In 1931, Chicago’s Challenger Pilots’ Association began an annual tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave, and in her honour of Coleman’s groundbreaking achievements, numerous awards, scholarships and memorials have been established, celebrating her contributions to aviation and impact on the civil rights movement.

Many aviation clubs were also named in her honour, including The Bessie Coleman Aero Club, formed in 1929 and organised by William Powell, which remains dedicated to promoting aviation education and opportunities for young African Americans. The Bessie Coleman Aviators were also formed in Chicago in 1977, and in 1995, a ‘Bessie Coleman Stamp’ was created commemorating her accomplishments.

In 2001, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2006, was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, nearly 80 years after her death. In 2023, the US Mint released a special quarter featuring Coleman as part of the ‘American Women Quarters Program’.

Bessie Coleman Womens Quarter

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Eric David Custer, Chris Costello / Public Domain

10. Her legacy continues to inspire African Americans and aviators worldwide

Coleman was an inspiration to a great many African Americans, including Willa Brown. Following in Coleman’s footsteps, Brown left her high school teaching job to attend flight school. She became a certified master mechanic, earned an MBA from Northwestern University, and became the first African American woman to receive a private pilot’s lesson in America. Later, Brown and her husband Cornelius Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which trained over 200 future Tuskegee Airmen – a group of African American military pilots and airmen who fought in World War Two.

Bessie Coleman’s legacy of determination, courage, and resilience remains an integral part of aviation history, and her trailblazing spirit continues to inspire aspiring aviators worldwide. 

The story of the first African-American military aviators in American military history.
Listen Now

Amy Irvine