Elizabeth Coleman aka Bessie Coleman
January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas one of her parents, Susan and George Coleman’s, 13 children. The family lived in Waxahachie, Texas where her father, a man of Native American and Black descent, worked as a sharecropper while her mother, a Black woman, earned a living as a maid. When Coleman was six-years-old her father returned to Oklahoma in search of better paying work and an escape from discrimination. Her mother decided to remain in Texas with four of the children which included Coleman.
Coleman’s mother continued to work as a maid to support herself and the family. When the children became old enough to do odd jobs, they also helped to contribute to the household. Beginning at an early age, Coleman helped her mother earn money by picking cotton and doing laundry. She also attended a segregated one-room schoolhouse where she studied for eight grades. Obtaining an education required effort as the school was four miles from her home and she sometimes didn’t have access to basic school supplies such as paper or pencils.
After years of saving her money, she enrolled at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma at the age of 18. Unfortunately, she had to drop out after one semester because she didn’t have enough money to continue paying tuition. At 23-years-old, she moved to Chicago where two of her older brothers had settled. She found work and supported herself through a variety of jobs such as a manicurist and restaurant manager.
World War I had ended a year before Coleman arrived in Chicago and her brothers had served in the military. They and other veterans shared stories about their experiences in Europe as well as the exploits of pilots. Coleman became determined to learn how to fly after one of her brothers pointed out that French women were learning how to fly airplanes and she as a Black woman could not.
Coleman had harbored a hunger to make something of herself from the time she was a very small child picking cotton. But, gender and racial discrimination combined with a lack of financial resources had consistently thwarted her efforts. This didn’t suddenly change when she decided to become a pilot. Her applications to flight schools across the country were rejected due to her race and gender. Offering encouragement, Robert Abbott suggested she move to France where she could enroll in flight school. Heeding his advice, Coleman took French classes as the applications for flight schools in France were required to be completed in French.
Once accepted at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France, Coleman used her savings as well as some financial support from Abbott to pay her passage across the Atlantic. Over seven months, she learned how to fly in a plane that had frequent malfunctions, some while in flight. Aside from this particular plane, aviation was still very dangerous at the time and a classmate died in a plane crash. Coleman was also the only Black person in her flight class. But, these factors did not deter Coleman and on June 15, 1921, she received her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
When she returned to America a few months later, she was greeted by reporters and invited to attend various public events. Coleman dreamed of purchasing a plane and starting a flight school for Black people but continued to face rejection. She returned to Europe to study advanced aviation and life-saving maneuvers which could double as stunts.
Returning to America she was once again greeted by the press and invited to make public appearances. She spent several years performing at air shows to earn a living and save money for her flight school. Yet, she refused to appear at any events that would not allow Black people to attend or segregated spectators. Coleman finally had the opportunity to purchase a surplus military plane in 1923. But, shortly after its purchase, the plane stalled and crashed during a show leaving Coleman alive but with substantial injuries and in need of several months of recovery in a hospital.
After taking some additional time to relax and recuperate in Chicago, Coleman returned to flying. Up to this point, her flight shows had been based out of Chicago with events taking place mostly in the Midwest and on the East coast. But in 1925, Coleman returned to the South to stage air shows and continue the pursuit of her goal to establish a flight school.
The heir of a chewing gum company gave her money towards the final payment for an airplane. And savings from her lectures, flight exhibitions, other events, and business ventures brought her ever closer to her goals. Revenue from a show planned for May 1, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida would add enough money to open the flight school.
Unfortunately, during a test flight, the day before the event, the plane nose-dived before flipping over, and Coleman fell to her death. The plane crashed and Coleman’s mechanic/co-pilot who had remained strapped into his seat died on impact. The plane’s engine was in poor condition and had issues during transport. It was later discovered that an unsecured wrench that had been used to perform maintenance and repairs had jammed the controls causing the accident. For reasons unknown, Coleman was not wearing a seat belt or parachute despite being known for taking safety precautions.
Bessie Coleman was 34 at the time of her death. Her body was recovered and several hundred mourners gathered for the first farewell in Jacksonville. Coleman’s casket was then transported to Chicago where it was draped in the American flag and veterans of the Black Eighth Infantry Regiment served as pallbearers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett presided over the funeral which drew several thousand mourners.
Five years after her death the Bessie Coleman Aero Club flight school was established in Los Angeles by Lieutenant William J. Powell. Since 1931, Black pilots in Chicago have held an annual flyover of her grave which is located in Lincoln Cemetery. In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Bessie Coleman stamp in her honor.
- Alexander, Kerri Lee. 2018. “Bessie Coleman.” National Women’s History Museum. 2018. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman.
- “Bessie Coleman.” n.d. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed March 6, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/.
- Lauria-Blum, Julia. 2019. “Bessie Coleman.” Cradle of Aviation Museum. June 7, 2019. https://www.cradleofaviation.org/history/history/women-in-aviation/bessie-coleman.html.
- Rudd, Thelma. n.d. “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” BessieColeman.org. Family of Bessie Coleman / Taste of Aviation, Inc. Accessed March 6, 2021. http://www.bessiecoleman.org/bio-bessie-coleman.php.
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