Happy Friday and welcome back to a new history blog! This time around we will be celebrating Bessie Coleman’s achievements and how she paved the way for African Americans and Native Americans in the aviation industry.
Nicknamed “Brave Bessie”, “Queen Bess”, and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”, Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Native American woman to obtain a pilot's license. She was mainly known for her flying tricks through the air and encouraging women and African Americans to reach their dreams.
Born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, Bessie was one of twelve brothers and sisters. Her mother was an African American maid and her father was a sharecropper of Native American and African American descent. To escape discrimination, Bessie’s father moved to Oklahoma in 1901, while her mother decided to stay in Texas with the rest of her family. Growing up, Bessie helped her mother pick cotton and wash clothes for extra money. Once she was 18, Bessie had saved up enough money to attend college and attended the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University). Bessie had to leave the institution after the first semester because she no longer had the funds to attend.
At the age of 23, Bessie went to live with her brothers in Chicago and became a manicurist in a local barber shop. During this time, her brothers served in the military during World War I. Coming home, they would describe their travels and teased Bessie that the women in France were able to learn how to fly planes and she couldn’t. These comments motivated her to learn how to fly and Bessie applied to multiple flight schools across the country, but wasn’t accepted due to the fact that she was both African American and a woman. This didn’t stop her ambition and so Bessie began to take French classes to prepare for her move to France, where she will later attend the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. This began her new dream of owning a plane and opening her own flight school. She gave speeches and showed videos of her air tricks in schools, churches, and theaters to raise money. In 1922, she performed the first flight by an African American woman. People quickly became fascinated by her tricks and Bessie became popular throughout the U.S. and Europe. Following her popularity, Bessie traveled to give flight lessons and performed in air shows while encouraging African American women to learn how to fly.
February of 1923, two years into her flight career, Bessie experienced a plane crash where she suffered from a broken leg, a few cracked ribs, and cuts on her face. Thankfully, she fully healed from her injuries by 1925 and still had the fuel to fly. Bessie continued with her dangerous stunts and was able to save up for her first plane, a Jenny - JN-4 with an OX-5 engine. She then returned to Texas to perform and refused to perform when she realized the managers were planning on segregating the entrance. By the end, the managers agreed to use one entrance for everyone, but there would be segregated seats. Bessie agreed to these terms and ended up performing. She then became famous for standing up for her beliefs.
April 30, 1926, Bessie took a flight test with mechanic William Wills. Wills took the pilot seat while Bessie took the passenger. At 3,000 feet above ground, a loose wrench got stuck in the engine of the aircraft and Wills was no longer able to control the plane’s steering and the plane flipped over. Unfortunately, Bessie was not wearing a seatbelt and at the time, airplanes did not have any roofing or protection. Bessie then immediately fell out of the plane and Wills then crashed the plane a few feet from her body. There were no survivors from this accident.
Her death was heartbreaking for the thousands of people she inspired. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association started a tradition of flying over her grave every year. By 1977, many African American women formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club in her honor. Bessie Coleman’s career was short, but within those years, she made history and inspired others with her actions and views.
More about Bessie Coleman:
Jenny Duong is a newly recruited Social Media Volunteer at Hera Aviation Group. She currently studies Global Business and Marketing at Southern New Hampshire University.
Jenny enjoys traveling and often visits family in Vietnam during the summer. She also enjoys spending time with her dog, Macie, often binging reality TV together. Their current guilty pleasure is the Bachelor franchise! Her biggest inspiration are her two older siblings even after all the teasing.