When we think of the early pioneers in the field of American flight, we'll hear about Amelia Earhart's solo trek across the Atlantic Ocean or Charles Lindbergh's nonstop journey in the Spirit of St. Louis, but the textbooks have often overlooked one pivotal figure who made an early mark on aviation history: Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to become a licensed pilot, which she accomplished in 1921.
Coleman was born Jan. 26, 1892, and grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, the daughter of a mixed-race Native American and Black father and an African American mother, who both worked as sharecroppers. As the 12th of 13 children, Coleman was put to work in the cotton fields after her father left the family to return to his Native reservation. She attended primary school in a one-room wooden shack.
"But she was a good student — an avid reader. She read about a woman named Harriet Quimby — a woman pilot. She thought that might be something she would be interested in doing," says Dr. Philip S. Hart.
Hart has written two books on Bessie Coleman "Just the Facts: Bessie Coleman" and "Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman" and also served as an adviser to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's "Black Wings" exhibit. The exhibit honors Black men and women who have advanced the field of aerospace, including not only aviators like Bessie Coleman, but also the Black Tuskegee Airmen who served in World War II.
Hart's own family history is inseparable from the history of Black aviation; Hart's mother's uncle, James Herman Banning, was the first Black American pilot to be licensed by the U.S. government in 1926. Banning and his co-pilot, Thomas C. Allen, became the first Black pilots to fly across America in 1932, according to Hart. Banning also became the first chief pilot of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which William J. Powell established in 1929 in honor of Coleman to support Black men and women in the field of aeronautics.
Coleman was preceded by Black male aviators, such as Charles Wesley Peters, the first African American pilot in the U.S., and Eugene J. Bullard, who flew for the French forces in World War I. But Coleman was the first African American female aviatrix to receive a pilot's license.
As a young woman, Coleman sought a different life for herself than the one her parents had, and she attended Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), but ended up dropping out for financial reasons.
She eventually made her way to Chicago, where her brothers lived, and she worked as a manicurist in a local salon. Her brother, who had returned from fighting during World War I, regaled her with stories of female pilots in France, joking that Coleman would never be able to fly like them. Such teasing only spurred on Coleman's ambitions to become a pilot.
While working in the salon, Coleman also met Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, which was a leading newspaper serving the Black community. Abbot would become her mentor, supporting her interests in aviation, and he would later write about her flight shows in his publication.
"One of the reasons he wanted to support her was because he knew her exploits would make for good stories in his newspaper," says Hart.
Coleman Goes to Paris
Based on her gender and color, she was denied admission to all the aviation schools she applied to in the United States. At Abbott's encouragement, Coleman studied French and went to Paris to learn how to fly, receiving an international pilot's license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 1921. While there, Coleman befriended fellow Black American expatriates like Bullard and entertainer Josephine Baker.
After receiving her license, Coleman returned to the U.S., but the only job opportunity for a trained pilot — delivering mail for the Postal Service — was unavailable to her as a Black person and as a woman. So, she turned to performing death-defying aerial stunts — also known as "barnstorming." Her first air show took place at the Checkerboard Field in Chicago in 1922.
"Generally, those air shows attracted anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people. They're high-energy affairs, big bands. You had pilots doing tricks. Wing walkers, parachute jumpers. A very high-energy, yet very dangerous event. Very profitable for the pilot," says Hart.
Barnstorming became a lucrative way not only to make a living, but also to finance the aero schools that Coleman intended to set up to foster Black participation in aviation.
"She was doing airshows, and she also wanted to inspire other Black men and women to go into aviation, so it was her idea to found aero clubs or flight schools in different cities around the country," says Hart.
Of course, as a prominent Black woman in an unorthodox career in the 1920s, Coleman faced explicit discrimination, but she was also able to win over Black and white supporters alike with her strong personality, good looks and immense talent in the air.
"You're going to get negative reactions from people in general — white people, because she's Black and she's a woman. She's going to get a certain kind of reaction from Black people who think she shouldn't be a pilot because it was viewed as something that men should do. So she faced discrimination and conflict from both Black and white people, but for the most part, her support in the Black community ... was pretty strong," says Hart.
Tragedy Strikes in Jacksonville, Florida
Sadly, tragedy cut short Coleman's life April 30, 1926, when she died after falling 2,000 feet (610 meters) from her plane while rehearsing for an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. A funeral service was held in Jacksonville, and a much larger one in Chicago, which more than 5,000 people attended — including Black civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, who eulogized Coleman.
Coleman's life has seen a renewed interest in recent decades from institutions seeking to honor her pioneering work and her legacy as a Black woman in aviation. The U.S. Postal Service honored Coleman by placing her image on a stamp that came out in 1995 as part of their Black Heritage series. And Hart is currently working on a feature film about Coleman's life story.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame also enshrined Coleman as one of their honorees in 2006, which Amy Spowart, President and CEO of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, calls "overdue and necessary," in an email interview.
"Bessie never took no for an answer. Whether it was working extremely hard to save up the funds needed for lessons, learning French when she realized that she would need to go to France to earn her license and that she would always fight gender and race bigotry, Coleman didn't let anything stand in her way," says Spowart.
Furthermore, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club ended up training many Black pilots, some of whom went on to serve as Tuskegee airmen during World War II. They also sponsored the first all-Black flight show in October 1931 at Eastside Airport in Los Angeles. The first air show was such a roaring success that the club sponsored a second show to raise money for the Los Angeles city unemployment fund at the height of the Great Depression.
"Her legacy is the Black men and women she inspired to follow her into the field of aviation, and the fact that that led to the founding of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club here in Los Angeles," says Hart.
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