Bessie Coleman: 30 Fascinating Facts About America's First Black Female Aviator
Bessie Coleman was a unique force in the aviation field in her day. She became the first of many things and impacted countless lives — and she still does now through the ongoing legacy of her bravery. She wasn't just a pretty face and aviator. She was an activist, a pioneer and a hero. Let these 30 interesting facts about Bessie Coleman inspire you.
Bessie Coleman Was the First Black Female Pilot
Bessie Coleman is probably most well-known for this fact: She was the first Black female pilot in the United States. She was 29 years old when she received her license. She earned her aviation license in 1921 and began her career in aviation as a civilian pilot.
She Was Also the First Native American Female Pilot
Her claim to fame didn’t stop with becoming the first Black female pilot. Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, the tenth of George Coleman’s children. Her grandparents were Cherokee. This means Coleman isn't just the first Black woman to become a licensed pilot.
She Was an Aviation Pioneer
In 1922, on Labor Day, Bessie Coleman staged the first public flight performed by an African-American woman. This was the start of her career as a trick flier and aviation star. Her aerial shows became extremely popular throughout the country and ultimately led to many other achievements.
She Was an Aviation Exhibition Pilot
Throughout her career as an aviator, Coleman was known for her flamboyant style, obstinate nature and daring attitude. These are huge parts of what drove her to succeed as an exhibition pilot. She flew these shows throughout the country, wowing audiences with dangerous aerial tricks and acrobatics.
She Went Back to Europe for More Training
After spending some time in the United States in the competitive field of aviation — still more than a decade before commercial flight was available — Bessie Coleman realized she needed to have further training to succeed as an aviator. She returned to Europe for advanced lessons to develop a more extensive repertoire of flying tricks.
Coleman Promised Herself She Would One Day “Amount to Something”
Coleman was a thrill-seeker, there’s no doubt about it. The admiration of the crowds cheering and the thrill of the stunt flying itself were huge parts of the draw in the lifestyle she chose. But in her childhood, Coleman once vowed to herself that she would "amount to something."
She Refused to Perform for Segregated Audiences
During her aviation career and those many aerial shows, Coleman was asked to perform in front of a range of audiences. And though for her career she might have considered doing more shows, her morals and personal stance forbade her from performing for any segregated audiences.
Bessie Coleman Was Born and Raised in the South
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, to a family of 13 children. The family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when Bessie was two years old, and they became sharecroppers. Bessie remained in the South for much of her life.
She Spent Her Life Fighting Misogyny and Racism
During the time period when Coleman was born, she had many things working against her. She was, first off, born female. In that age, being a woman immediately put her at a disadvantage. Many things were forbidden for women, such as technical careers and business ownership.
Coleman Was a Lecturer and Teacher
Bessie Coleman was very strongly behind the promotion of aviation as a career for anyone, especially women and minorities. She regularly spoke in front of audiences around the country, promoting aviation and combating racism. She spoke on these subjects freely, encouraging goals for African Americans in any field, especially aviation.
She Could Have Been a Movie Star
Because Bessie Coleman was such a media sensation, she had a lot of big connections in the industry. Through these contacts, she was offered a big role in the movie Shadow and Sunshine. It was going to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company.
But She Ultimately Turned Down the Role
When Coleman learned that her first appearance on screen would be as a stereotyped and offensive character, she turned down the role and walked away from the project. Her character was supposed to appear on screen in tattered clothing with a walking stick and a pack on her back.
She Only Attended College for One Term
Due to her birth into a sharecropping family, Coleman’s studies were interrupted each year by the cotton-harvesting season. She couldn’t finish school, attend church or even do her household chores steadily throughout an entire year thanks to this hard life. At the age of 12, she was accepted into the Missionary Baptists Church School via scholarship.
Coleman Came From a Large but Broken Family
On January 26, 1892, Bessie was born the tenth of 13 in the Coleman family. Only nine of these children survived past childhood. Later, her brothers moved to Chicago, seeking a better life with more career opportunities. Coleman eventually joined her brothers there.
She Became the First African American to Gain an International Pilot’s License
On June 15, 1921, almost precisely one year after moving to France for her aviation studies, Coleman became the first Black woman and first Native American to earn an international aviation license. But this wasn’t just a first for a woman — she was the first African American and Native American to receive this license, period.
Coleman Was in a Plane Crash and Survived
After two years in her career as a pilot, Coleman was in a major airplane accident. In February 1923, her airplane engine stalled suddenly and she crashed. Coleman suffered a broken leg, several cracked ribs and lacerations to her face.
Bessie Coleman Attempted to Start an Aviation School for Black Aviators
Bessie Coleman planned to found an aviation school for Black aviators. Unfortunately, her untimely death prevented this. Her life and career, however, have inspired generations of people — both men and women of all nationalities — to pursue their dreams in unexpected fields, particularly in aviation.
Her Propensity for Mathematics Saved Coleman From Life in Cotton Fields
It was discovered early on in Coleman’s education that she had a strong propensity for mathematics and higher-learning subjects. Though she remained in the cotton fields as a child, this intelligence and advanced skill allowed her to proceed further in schooling in her middle school years.
Coleman Was Prohibited From Attending Aviation Schools in America
Bessie Coleman needed to attend aviation school to gain her pilot’s license. But at the time, American schools refused to admit both women and African Americans to their programs. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, knew of Coleman’s desire to fly.
She Walked Four Miles to School Each Day
At the age of six, Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie, Texas. She was only permitted to attend a segregated school, so she was forced to walk four miles each day to attend classes in a one-room schoolhouse.
She Worked as a Manicurist in Chicago
At the age of 24 in 1916, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois. There she lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. She heard the stories of WWI pilots returning from war while working there.
She Was the First African American to Earn a Pilot's License
Because the aviation schools of America refused to admit any Black students or any female students of any color, Bessie Coleman couldn’t attend classes to gain her license in the U.S. But, thanks to the funding she received, she was able to study abroad and gain her license.
To Prepare for School, Bessie Coleman Learned French
The best option for earning her pilot’s license led Coleman to France. In order to prepare for her study abroad at an aviation school, Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, where she became reasonably fluent in the language.
She Wasn’t Afraid of Hard Work
In the 1920s, while on a speaking tour, Coleman met Reverend Hezekiah Hill and his wife, Viola, in Orlando, Florida. The couple were community activists who believed in Coleman’s vision for aviation and the school for Black aviators.
Her First Public Appearance Was to Honor Black Veterans
Coleman’s first public appearance was not just a show to move her career forward. It was actually a memorial show given in honor of veterans of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of WWI.
Coleman's Nicknames Were "Queen Bessie" and "Brave Bessie"
Once Coleman returned from Europe with her aviation training, she was an extremely popular entertainer for the next five years. Her brave artistry in the skies and daring stunts earned her the nicknames "Brave Bessie" and "Queen Bessie," due to the extremely dangerous nature of her work.
Ultimately, a Plane Crash Took Coleman's Life
Bessie Coleman was known for her incredible aerial acrobatics. She performed daredevil maneuvers like figure eights, loops and near-ground dips and dives. But her final show took place in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 30, 1926.
There’s a Street in Orlando Named for Her
Thanks to the time that Coleman spent in Orlando living with the Reverend Hill and the beauty shop she owned there, a street in Orlando was named after her. The street was originally named West Washington but was renamed for Coleman in 2015, in honor of one of the city’s most accomplished residents.
An Aero Club Was Created in Her Honor
The airplane crash that ended Coleman’s life in 1926 prevented her from seeing her dream of an aviator’s school for Black students come to fruition. But Lieutenant William J. Powell, a Black aviator, founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929 in her honor.
There’s a Bessie Coleman Postage Stamp
In 1995, the United States Postal Service recognized this amazing aerial queen by creating a postage stamp in her honor. The image bears her likeness with her flying goggles. More than 15,000 people attended the funeral services of Coleman that were held in both Orlando and Chicago, and her bravery was an inspiration to many future pilots.