Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta Texas, right near the border with Louisiana and Arkansas, in 1892. Her mother was African American and her father was mixed race Native American and African American. She had 12 siblings. Bessie excelled at school, especially math, but there were many obstacles to her education, including that the school closed for months during cotton picking season; then after her father abandoned the family she became the primary caregiver for her younger siblings.
Finally at age 23 in 1915 Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her older brothers. She became a manicurist. Her brothers later served in World War I, and after returning one of them taunted Bessie about how much more sophisticated French women were than she, and that French women even flew airplanes! Bessie became determined to learn to fly. The biggest problem was finding a flight instructor. Those who may have been willing to teach a Black person were not willing to teach a woman, and those willing to teach women were not willing to teach a Black person. The only option was to move to France, where her race or gender would not be an issue. She saved money, learned some French, got a loan from a local Black newspaper, Chicago Defender, and moved to France. There in 1921 Bessie became the world’s first Black woman and the first Native American woman to earn her pilot’s license.
Coleman’s greatest dream was to open a flight school for African Americans in the United States. With a focus on encouraging black women and children into aviation, she participated in speaking engagements across the country, especially in the South. Bessie became a barnstormer and gave many African Americans their first airplane ride. She saw barnstorming as a way to make money to open her flight school, make a name for herself, and attract more students.
Coleman had a strong understanding of what it would take to stand out in aviation. She needed to create her own hype, and then live up to it. She went back to France in 1922 to learn some fancier flight maneuvers. Coleman returned to the U.S. as an aerial performer with a distinctive style in the air and on the ground. She dressed well, complete with a new wardrobe from France. She cultivated a sophisticated persona the media and air show organizers that sometimes made her seem a bit of a diva. But that’s show biz; one of her neighbors in Florida, a young boy named Jessie Green, described her as “a friendly lady, talking to everyone, even us children.”
She stood by her principles, even if it meant less notoriety. When movie parts came her way, Bessie vowed to never play an Uncle Tom character, proving it on one occasion by storming off the set of a movie when she saw that her role was leading in that direction.
Coleman understood the value of a judicious lie (especially to the press) to boost her image. She lied repeatedly about her age, and no publication ever listed her as older than 24, including her death announcements in 1926 when she was in-fact 34 (this was a fairly common lie for women entertainers during this time period).
After a few years of barnstorming she still didn’t have the cash to achieve her dream. Airplanes and their up-keep weren’t cheap, so early in 1926 she opened a manicure parlor in Florida to make more money, planning a brief retirement from the barnstorming circuit.
Bessie’s final flight was in Florida during the spring of 1926. She had just received her second airplane, an old Curtiss Jenny, and took it up to prepare for a performance the next day. She was to be the main attraction at the Black County Fair (held separately because African Americans were not allowed at the “regular” County Fair). Part of the show would include a woman parachuting from her plane. Bessie went up as a passenger in her two-cockpit Jenny to scout good spots for the parachute jump. The pilot, William Wills, was a man from Texas who had delivered her plane to Florida. Because of her diminutive height she couldn’t scan the terrain while wearing a seatbelt, so she kept it unbuckled. The flight was routine until a wrench somehow wound up in the controls, causing Wills to lose control of the plane. It flipped, sending Coleman toppling 500 feet to her death. Wills struggled with the plane in vain and crashed to his death.
Already well known, her tragic dead brought legendary fame. Her death not only cancelled the air show, it cancelled the entire fair, leaving the grounds empty and desolate. Those who had been planning to attend the fair went to her funeral instead. Funeral services and wakes were held for Bessie Coleman in Florida and her home of Chicago, attended in total by more than 20,000 mourners, including prominent Blacks who paid their respects in Chicago. Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells served as mistress of ceremonies; suffragist, activist, and musician Viola Hill delivered a eulogy, and her 22 pallbearers included Congressman Oscar DePriest and Earl B. Dickerson, who had just won a case before the Supreme Court.
The Black press mourned her loss with articles and eulogies. Several of the newspapers admitted that the Black community had not supported her as much as it should have. Mainstream newspapers barely mentioned Coleman, instead focusing all of their attention on the pilot—who was white. One of the papers claimed that Wills was giving Coleman a flying lesson. Others may have gotten the story right, but after a cursory mention of her name, simply referred to as “the woman.” One Chicago paper covered the crash on page ten, and did not even mention that she was a resident.
Bessie Coleman’s legacy far outlived her, and though she never achieved her dream of opening an aviation school, others picked up the torch. Three years after her death, William Powell opened the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in her honor in Los Angeles. Inspired by Coleman, Chicago became a mainstay of Black aviation for decades. Willa Brown, the second black woman to get a pilot’s license, patterned her personal style after Coleman’s. Beginning in the 1930s, visiting Black pilots routinely left flowers on her grave. A group of Black women student pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club in 1977. And in 1990, one of the roads at O’Hare International Airport was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive.
Bessie Coleman continues to inspire aviators to this day, nearly 100 years after her death.
(The 95th anniversary of her death is on April 30, 2021).
--Brenda has a master's in Museum Studies and is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the museum community.