Last updated on July 8, 2022
Bessie Coleman, one of 10 kids that were born to George and Susan Coleman, was born on January 26, 1892, in the far east Texas town of Atlanta. George and Susan made ends meet by sharecropping, washing laundry and cooking for white families. Growing up Bessie was an excellent student, where she excelled at math and reading. She would complete school all the way up to eighth grade, and all of it done in a one room schoolhouse.
George moved the family to Waxahachie for work reasons, but he left the family there and moved back to Oklahoma, once again in a quest to find better work. The interesting thing about this is that Susan and the children did not go with him. The family continued to pick cotton to feed themselves.
During all of this Bessie believed that she was destined for greater things than living out a meager existence. Trying to get out of the situation she was in, she saved all the money she could and attended a year at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. The problem was that her money ran out after that amount of time and she had to go leave school. She returned home.
At the age of 23 she moved to Chicago and lived with some of her brothers who were living there at the time. She worked at a supermarket and as a manicurist, but she dreamed of flying. Orville and Wilbur Wright had flown their Wright Flyer in 1903, and Bessie wanted to do the same. She heard stories from men returning from The Great War about flying over the battlefields of France and they fascinated her.
With some financial backing, she took classes in French and then in 1920 traveled to Paris to attend the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She’d had to travel that far to learn to fly, because American flight schools would not allow blacks to enroll. By 1921, after training, she was the only black pilot in the world.
She became a role model, not just for black women, but people of all races, for she had overcome great obstacles and fulfilled her dreams. Sadly, her dream came to an end on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida when she crashed in the first plane she had ever owned.
She and her mechanic had taken the new plane out for a test flight. During the flight the mechanic, who was piloting the plane, experienced engine trouble and lost control of the aircraft. Bessie fell out of the open cockpit of the plane and plummeted several hundred feet to her death.
More than 5,000 people attended her memorial services in Chicago and another 10,000 filed past her coffin to pay their last respects. She garnered much attention even in death, but she will always be the first black woman pilot. 1Information for this piece came from Texas Escapes and BessieColeman.com.