What’s that in the sky? It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in history to hold an international pilot’s license!
Bessie Coleman was born in Texas in 1892, number 10 in a family of 13 children. Her parents were sharecroppers, but while Bessie helped them in the fields she dreamed of learning to fly an airplane. Could she do it? (Spoiler alert: yes!)
When Bessie was a young adult, she moved to Chicago to pursue her dream of earning a pilot’s license. Shitty surprise! Neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to enter flight schools in the US. While many people might look for work elsewhere upon learning that no one in the whole country would allow them to learn to fly a plane, Bessie took a boat to France and got her license there instead. Très bien fait, Bess!
Upon earning her license (which, btw, she had to do IN FRENCH) Bessie Coleman returned to the US and made a name for herself as “Queen Bess,” a talented and glamorous “barnstorming” pilot (commercial flights were still a thing of the future, so Bess and other pilots of the day had to stick mainly to the airshow circuit). Bess longed not only to fly commercially, but also to start an aviation school in the US for African-Americans and women who wished to follow in her awesome footsteps.
Unfortunately, Bessie was never able to start her school. During a test run in April of 1926, Bessie and her mechanic died tragically in a plane crash. Though she had only been flying in the US for five years, her funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners who had been inspired by her talent and determination. From the Bessie Coleman website:
Only after her death did Bessie receive the recognition that she deserved. Her dream of a flying school for African American’s became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California in 1929. As a result of being affiliated, educated or inspired directly or indirectly, by the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, flyers like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos(James Banning and Thomas Allen), the Tuskegee Airmen, Cornelius Coffey, John Robison, Willa Brown and Harold Hurd continued to make Bessie Coleman’s dream a reality.
You can hear some audio footage of Bessie Coleman speaking about her experiences in this “Americans in Focus” video:
Thank you, Queen Bess, for opening the skies up for so many who came after you. Speaking of those who came after, you can read more about Bessie Coleman here.