Happy Black History Month! This is the seventh blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Bessie Coleman, the first Black person and Native American person to become a licensed pilot. Her achievements paved the way for future Black pilots like the Tuskegee Airmen and the Flying Hobos.
This is her story.
Grew Up In Texas
According to womenshistory.org, Bessie Coleman was born one of 12 children of Susan and George Coleman. Her father was of Native American descent as well as African American descent. He moved away from the family in 1901 because of discrimination. As a result, Coleman grew up helping her single mother pick cotton and wash laundry to support the family. While working, Coleman was able to save enough money to attend what is now Langston University for one semester.
Moved to Chicago
After her semester at Langston, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. There, she attended beauty school and became a manicurist for a short time. After her brother came back from fighting in WWI, she heard many of his stories about his time in France, including how French women are able to learn how to fly. He poked fun at Bessie because she would never be able to do so in Chicago. It was this interaction that inspired her to apply to flight school.
Flight School in France
Facing double discrimination as a Black woman, Coleman applied for flight schools across the country, but none accepted her. Eventually, she decided to apply for flight schools in France, which required a working knowledge of French, so Coleman began taking night classes in Chicago. Ultimately, she was accepted and enrolled in the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Coleman then received her international pilot’s license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. After this incredible achievement, she spent time traveling the country giving speeches, showing films of her air tricks, giving flight lessons, and performing in flight shows. She refused to speak anywhere that discriminated against Black people.
First Major Accident
Two years after receiving her license, Coleman’s first major plane accident caused some pretty serious injuries. Midflight a trip in 1923, her engine stopped working and she crashed, breaking a leg, a few ribs, and cutting up her face. Despite this, Coleman survived, healed, and was back in the air two years later doing flight shows and giving lessons again. After a show venue in Texas wanted to segregate the crowd by using two separate entrances, Coleman told them she wouldn’t perform unless there was only one entrance for everyone to use. Show coordinators agreed but still segregated the seating. Coleman became known for standing up against segregation.
At the age of 34, Coleman took a standard test flight with mechanic William Wills. Unfortunately, midflight, a loose wrench jammed within the engine and they lost control of the plane as it turned itself upside down. Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt, fell out of the roofless plane and died on impact. William Wills also died when the plane crashed. As a legendary pilot and an activist in her own right, Coleman’s death devastated many people around the world. Civil rights activist Ida B. Wells led her funeral in 1926. Read more about Bessie Coleman here.
Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.