Bessie Coleman defied the 1920s stereotypes of what African Americans or women could accomplish by becoming the first Black woman in the world to get a pilot’s license. “Brave Bess” cut a streak through the sky before Ameila Earhardt, the Tuskegee Airmen or Mae Jemison (first African-American astronaut).
Texas-born Coleman (1893-1926) was working as a manicurist in Chicago when she became intrigued with becoming a pilot. Of course, all the U.S. aviation schools rejected her applications. Undaunted by that, Coleman decided to go to France to learn to fly. So she took French language lessons at night and saved money for her trip. Coleman sailed for France in 1920 to attend aviation school and earned her license in about nine months. One of the largest Black newspaper in the country, the Chicago Defender, helped sponsor her studies and publicized her accomplishment. Her beauty, brains and daredevil personality made good reading.
Unable to find full-time work as a pilot back in the states, Coleman eventually became a “barnstormer” or stunt flier. Brave Bess crisscrossed the country, flying in air shows and encouraging Blacks, especially women, to try aviation. She refused to fly in air shows that segregated the audience and insisted both races use the same admission gate.
Coleman was excited about what would be her last performance. The proceeds would give her enough money to fulfill her dream – opening a flight school for Blacks. Coleman was not flying her plane on that last trip. Her mechanic, William Willis, piloted while she scanned the terrain below for a perfect spot for her parachute-jump stunt. But the plane went into a nose dive and Coleman – not wearing a seat belt – was thrown to the ground and killed instantly. She was 34. The plane crashed nearby and Willis died as well.
The Black community was particularly stunned by Coleman’s death, and three funerals were held so that thousands could pay their respects to a woman who wanted more in life than to pick cotton or work menial jobs. (An investigation showed that a forgotten tool slipped into the gearbox, making the plane spin out of control).
Brave Bess’ career was short (less than 5 years), but her impact was long-lasting. After her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs popped up around the country. And for many years, Black pilots honored her by flying in formation and dropping wreaths over her Chicago grave. In 1995, a postage stamp was issued in her honor, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) renamed a conference center after her.