“Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream” -Lieutenant William J. Powell
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, the first African American female pilot, had the drive and ambition to achieve more in 6 short years than many people achieve in a lifetime.
Bessie had quite a few obstacles blocking her goal of becoming a pilot. Born in 1892 in Texas, she grew up in a society that didn’t offer many opportunities to young black women. Her family was poor, and education was often out of reach. Coleman, however, was so determined to get an education that she would walk 4 miles to attend classes in a one-room shack, starting at the age of 6. She finished school at the top of her class, doing especially well in mathematics.
In search of better opportunities, 23-year-old Coleman moved to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers. She found work in a barber shop as a manicurist, and it was there that the thrilling stories of returning WWI soldiers inspired her dream of becoming a pilot. Coleman began searching the US for a trainer, only to be turned down repeatedly for her race and gender. Not to be stopped, she took the advice of one of her clients, the owner of the newspaper the “Chicago Defender” Robert Abbott, and decided to head to France in order to earn her pilot’s license. She learned French, and with financial support from the “Chicago Defender”, banker Jesse Binga, and her own savings, Coleman departed on November 20, 1920. She studied for 7 months and was awarded an international pilot’s license in June of 1921, making her both the first American to be awarded a license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the first African-American woman to have a pilot’s license.
Upon returning stateside, Coleman caused a media stir. However, she quickly realized that she would need more training in order to earn a living from her new career as a stunt flier. But not much had changed since the last time she sought training in the US – despite her newfound fame, she still could not find anyone in the country that would work with her. She traveled once again to Europe and was trained in several countries, returning to the US to become an aviation sensation. Known as “Queen Bess” and admired for her daring stunts and flamboyant style, Coleman would perform at many air shows over the next 5 years.
In February 1923, Coleman’s plane stalled and crashed, a disaster which she survived with a few broken ribs and leg. She wouldn’t be so lucky in her next crash, which occurred on April 30, 1926. She and William Wills, her mechanic, were flying together in a newly-purchased but poorly-maintained plane, with Coleman in the passenger seat. Because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day, Coleman had her seatbelt unbuckled in order to peer over the cockpit to scout the terrain. The plane dived unexpectedly, throwing Coleman to the ground where she died instantly. Wills lost control and plummeted to the ground, dying upon impact. The culprit was determined to be a wrench that had been jammed inside the gearbox. She was only 34 years old.
During her career, Coleman remained true to her ideals and worked to encourage other African-Americans to take up flying. For example, she refused to perform at any air show that that wouldn’t admit members of her race. She also put her foot down when it came to perpetuating derogatory racial stereotypes. She was offered a role in the film Shadow and Sunshine, which she accepted until learning that her first scene would portray her as a caricature, dressed in tattered clothing with a pack on her back.
In 6 short years, Bessie Coleman achieved her own dream of becoming a pilot, entertaining and inspiring crowds of people around the world. She is still one of history’s most inspiring people today, who managed to both soar and remain grounded without letting society’s barriers stop her from achieving many of her goals. Although she died before achieving her goal of starting a flying school, or as she put it, “mak[ing] Uncle Tom’s cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school”, her legacy continues to live.