The first African American woman to fly an airplane and the first to earn an international pilot’s license.
Bessie Coleman, known to her fans as “Queen Bess,” grew up caring for her thirteen younger siblings on a small farm near Waxahachie, Texas. Coleman’s father left the family when Coleman was nine, and her mother supported the children by picking cotton and taking in laundry. Although at the top of her class, Coleman had to leave school at the end of eighth grade to work as a laundress. Finding domestic work humiliating, she left Texas in 1915 and went to live with her brother in Chicago, where she studied to be a manicurist.
During World War I (1914-1918), Coleman read accounts of brave aviators and decided that she wanted to become a pilot and open a flight school for African Americans. When no flight school in the United States would accept her as a student, she went to France. Coleman began her training at the École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron at at Le Crotoy in November, 1920. In June, 1921, she became the first black woman to receive a license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She returned to Chicago in September, 1921, hoping to further her flight training, but again no flight school in the United States would accept her. Undaunted, she returned to France in February, 1922, and completed an advanced course. She sailed for the United States in August, ready to begin her aviation career.
Coleman flew in her first air show, the first public flight in the United States by an African American, in New York on September 3, 1922, and went on to perform in air shows across the country. She was offered a role in a motion picture, but when she found that it required her to dress in ragged clothing, she refused, believing the role would perpetuate a negative image of African Americans. After this episode, several of her backers withdrew their support of her.
Coleman began a lecture tour hoping to inspire young African Americans but found that the meager sums she collected from her audiences would not allow her to achieve her dream of opening a flight school. The chewing-gum manufacturer Edwin W. Beeman helped her purchase a plane in which to fly in a celebration sponsored by Jacksonville’s Negro Welfare League. On the day before the event, Coleman’s mechanic, William D. Wills, took her up so she could survey the area. Coleman sat in the back of the plane without wearing her seatbelt, so she could boost herself up to see out of the cockpit. A wrench left in the airplane jammed the controls, causing the plane to flip and go into a tailspin. Coleman was flung from the plane and plunged 2,000 feet to her death.
Haskins, Jim. Black Eagles: African Americans in Aviation. New York: Scholastic, 1995. A superb history of many of the greatest African American pilots and astronauts. Plantz, Connie. Bessie Coleman: First Black Woman Pilot. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2001. A biography written for younger readers, with bibliographical references and an index. Rich, Doris. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1995. An excellent, in-depth biography of Coleman.
Training and education
Women and flight