Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Texas, the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers.
Bessie began attending school at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student.
Bessie completed all eight grades of her one-room school. Every year, her routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest.
In 1901, her father left for Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was then called, to find better work, but left his wife and children behind.
At age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. When she turned eighteen, Bessie took what little savings she had and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma.
She completed one term before her money ran out, and returned home to Texas.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Bessie and some of her brothers moved to Chicago, Illinois, and began working at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist.
While working as a manicurist as well as working at a chili parlor, Bessie heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying .
She dreamed of flying herself but could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman.
No black pilot agreed to train her either.
Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged Bessie to learn how to fly abroad, offering her financial backing including help from a Chicago banker named Jesse Binga.
Bessie signed up for a French language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then followed her dream to Paris on November 20, 1920.
Bessie Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front with a rudder bar under her feet.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but the first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license.
Determined to polish her flying skills, Bessie spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, sailed for New York where she immediately became a media sensation.
Bessie quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would need to become a “barnstorming” exhibition stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences.
But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, Bessie would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire of skills.
Returning to Chicago, Bessie could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe.
Bessie 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.
Bessie then returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.
Bessie 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” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war.
Queen Bess, as she became known, delivered stunning demonstrations of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to large and enthusiastic crowds at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).
Bessie was invited to important events, interviewed by newspapers, and was admired by both blacks and whites.
But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Bessie’s dream.
Bessie never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.”
As a professional aviator, Bessie 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.
Then on February 22, 1923 in Los Angeles, Bessie broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed.
Through the resulting media attention, Bessie 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.
Bessie, unfortunately, would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman was in Jacksonville. She recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an airshow.
Her friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it.
Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with Bessie in the other seat.
Bessie had not put on her seatbelt, perhaps because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain.
About ten minutes into the flight, the plane did not pull out of a dive; instead it spun.
Bessie was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground.
William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground.
Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames.
Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine slid into the gearbox and jammed it.
Elizabeth Bessie Coleman was 34 years old.
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”.
Powell had 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.
Legacy and honors
Her funeral in Jacksonville, Florida on May 2, 1926 was attended by 5,000 mourners.
Three days later, her remains arrived in Orlando, Florida, where thousands more attended a funeral at the city’s Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
Three days later her remains went to Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church.
An estimated 10,000 people filed past the coffin all night and all day.
After funeral services, Bessie was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.
Her impact on aviation history, and particularly African Americans in aviation, quickly became apparent following her death.
In 1927, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout the country.
On Labor Day, 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Coleman’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. Coleman’s name also began appearing on buildings in Harlem. In 1989, First Flight Society inducted Coleman into their shrine that honors those individuals and groups that have achieved significant “firsts” in aviation’s development.
A second-floor conference room at the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., is named after Coleman.
In 1990, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley renamed Old Mannheim Road at O’Hare International Airport “Bessie Coleman Drive.”
In 1992, he proclaimed May 2 to be “Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago”.
Mae Jemison, physician and former NASA astronaut, wrote in the book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993): “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying.”
In 1995, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1999 she was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
In November 2000, Coleman was inducted in The Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 2004, a small park in the Southside Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood was named “Bessie Coleman Park.” Additionally, the Bessie Coleman park council was formed in 2005 as one of many responses to a serious increase in crime, shootings, and disorderly loitering around the park, at 54th St. and Drexel Ave.
In 2007, a street in Gateway Gardens, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was named after her.
The 90th anniversary of her first flight, July 23, 2011, was commemorated by a reading of parts of her biographies and an exhibition of model aircraft at Miller Field (Staten Island, New York), a former United States Air Force facility.
Now WE know em