First African-American Female Aviator Bessie Coleman, was the daughter of a poor, southern, African American family. She became one of the most famous women and African Americans in aviation history. Known as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bess,” faced the double difficulties of racial and gender discrimination in early 20th-century America but overcame such challenges to become the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
- Bessie Coleman picked cotton as a child, but her mother was determined that her thirteen children get an education.
- She grew up on a farm near the town of Waxahachie, Texas(30 miles from Dallas)
- Her mother was African American. Her father was part African American and part American Indian.
- When she was nine years old, her father left the family to search in Oklahoma for the territory of his Indian ancestors.
- Bessie graduated from high school and went to college in the state of Oklahoma. She was in college only one year. She had to leave because she did not have enough money to complete her studies.
- When Coleman turned 23 she headed to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers, hoping to make something of herself.
- She was forced for a time to work as a laundress and manicurist to make ends meet.
- While in Chicago she began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation.
- The fact that she was African American and a woman, she was unable to find an aviation school that would teach her to fly.
- One of her contacts through her job as a manicurist was Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender. He encouraged her to go to France to study flying there.
- She left for France in 1920 using the funds she received from several sponsors including Abbott
- After only seven months, Coleman earned her license from France’s well known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.
- In 1922, Coleman broke barriers and became the world’s first black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
- Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks.
- She made her first appearance in an American air show on September 3, 1922. Her flight was the first public flight by an African- American woman in America.
- She started a beauty shop in Florida to help raise funds to start a flying school for African Americans.
- Coleman landed a movie role, but walked away when she realized that the depiction of her as a black woman would be as a stereotypical “Uncle Tom.”
- In 1923, Bessie Coleman bought her own plane, a World War I surplus Army training plane.
- On April 30, 1926, she and her mechanic went for a test flight, with the mechanic piloting the plane and Bessie in passenger seat. A loose wrench got wedged in the open gear box, and the controls jammed. Bessie Coleman was thrown from the plane at 1,000 feet, and she died in the fall to the ground.
- Every April 30, African American aviators — men and women — fly in formation over Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Chicago and drop flowers on Bessie Coleman’s grave.
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Legend has it, that the controls were tampered with. Bessie, had recently worked on the plane, and knew it was in prime condition. What really happened, we will never know. Also, Bessie learned French, before she went to France.