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.
Coleman soon realized that despite becoming the first Black female pilot, she would have to do more to succeed in such a competitive industry. She turned to the route of "barnstorming" stunt flying and made her living through this field of aviation.
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 can also claim the achievement of being the first Native American to earn a pilot’s license. This achievement continues to resonate with people of color, women and many others, thanks to Coleman’s bold spirit and willingness to do anything to accomplish her goals and dreams in this life.
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.
Bessie Coleman boldly flew in the face of society’s restraints and repeatedly did things that women and people of color simply "did not do." Each of her firsts, such as this, landed her squarely in the civil rights history "hall of fame."
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 was criticized by some for being too daring and having an opportunistic nature when it came to her career. The attitude of the day, however, would have praised a white male for the same reckless abandon if the career were his.
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.
She attempted first to learn further in Chicago, but no one was willing to teach her. She decided then to return to Europe in February 1922. She spent two months in France completing an advanced aviation course.
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."
This personal vow became a huge driving force in her pursuits as a professional aviatrix and in her exhibition flying shows. Through these shows, she also gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to perform a difficult stunt.
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.
If people of color were denied access to the show, Coleman outright refused to perform. This was one of the many things that provoked her "obstinate" reputation among various potential investors and media personalities of the day. She didn’t care, though, and stood by her beliefs.
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.
At the age of 18, she moved north to Chicago where she worked in other fields, but after receiving her pilot’s license, she returned to a different portion of the South, living in Florida — a career move deemed best for improving her financial means in support of her aviation career.
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 also Black and Native American. Being a person of color meant that Coleman constantly faced interference and prejudice against her. She had to fight an uphill battle for everything throughout her entire life.
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 specifically visited schools where Black students were in attendance and encouraged them to follow their dreams — whatever they were — and to pursue careers in aviation and similar fields that had been off-limits to African Americans and women.
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.
She gladly accepted the part, hoping that the film would help with her career as an aviator and provide her with more funds. She planned to use the money to start an aviation school for Black students, both male and female.
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.
Coleman refused to move forward with the project because of the racism being so clearly demonstrated through the part. This was a statement of principle that other people recognized, but the investors were angry over her decision and called her "eccentric" and "temperamental."
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.
At the age of 18, Coleman took all the savings she had and attended the then Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, now named Langston University. She completed one term before her money ran out and she was forced to leave school.
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.
But in 1901, George Coleman, Bessie’s father, left the family to return to Indian Territory, as Oklahoma was then called, looking for better opportunities for himself. Bessie’s mother, Susan, remained in Texas with the children on the sharecropper’s farm. Susan and the children continued to work the land.
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.
The license was issued by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. To improve her skills, Coleman continued her studies in France for another two months, taking lessons from a local pilot. She returned to the U.S. in September that year and was greeted with a media frenzy.
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.
Such a significant crash should’ve been fatal or permanently disfiguring, but thankfully, her injuries otherwise were minor. Coleman fully healed from her wounds and she returned to flying. Within two years, she was back to her dangerous aviation stunts. She continued performing these stunts until her death.
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.
WWI pilot Lieutenant William J. Powell wrote in "Black Wings," "We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream." Powell went on to tirelessly promote the cause for Black aviators, largely in thanks to Bessie Coleman’s influence on his life.
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.
This freed her from much of the hard manual labor that so many others in her family and community had to endure. She was able to take this knowledge and skill into a single term of college and eventually into her dream aviation career.
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.
Abbott encouraged her to study abroad where she might more freely earn her license. Abbott publicized Coleman’s quest for a license in his newspaper. Through this publicity, Coleman received financial support for her endeavors from a banker, Jesse Binga, as well as Abbott’s paper.
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.
There, she discovered her love of reading and was able to establish herself as an outstanding math student, which would later lead to her growth as an aviator and pioneer. She was able to complete her elementary education in that same school and continued on to other grades, though she did not complete them.
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 wasn’t earning enough as a manicurist, so she took a second job at a chili parlor. She saved up enough money from both of these jobs to pursue her dream of flight — to be a pilot like those she admired so greatly.
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.
In the process, she became not only the first Black woman to gain her license, but she became the first African American to earn a pilot’s license. This was just one more way that Coleman was a forward thinker and mover in her time.
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.
On November 20, 1920, she moved to Paris to earn that license. She learned to fly using a Nieuport 82 biplane. This plane had a steering system that consisted of a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet and a vertical stick about the thickness of a baseball bat.
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.
They encouraged her to stay in Orlando and invited her to live with them at the parsonage of the Missionary Baptist Church in the Parramore neighborhood. They persuaded her to open her own beauty shop in Orlando to help earn extra money to buy her airplane to use for her aviation career.
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.
Thanks to sponsorship by Robert Abbott, the show took place. The show dubbed Coleman the "world’s greatest woman" aviator. Other aviators also flew in the show, including eight ace pilots. There was even a parachute jump by African American parachutist, Hubert Julian.
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.
She was often invited to important events and interviewed by the media. She was admired by everyone for flying her Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and the surplus Army planes she also flew.
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.
About 10 minutes into her flight in a newly purchased "Jenny" that had been poorly maintained before she claimed it, Coleman was thrown from her plane. The aircraft had taken an unexpected dive and flew into a spin at 3,000 feet above the ground. Coleman was not wearing her seatbelt, as she had planned on doing a parachute jump. Coleman died upon impact.
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.
There are also streets in Chicago, Tampa and Frankfurt, Germany, named for the daring aviatrix who helped to change the world. You can find these streets easily on Google Maps by just typing in her name.
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.
Powell tirelessly worked to promote the Black aviation cause through his own writings — in his book and as a journalist — and through the founding and running of the club in her honor and name.
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.
A postage stamp was a small but memorable offering the United States gave to honor this incredible aviator, woman, Native American and African American. Her memory lives on for aviators and dreamers everywhere.