Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was a true pioneer in aviation.
During a time when female aviators were few and far between, Bessie was able to make a name for herself by becoming the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Her determination and courage are remembered now, nearly a century later, as we put our spotlight on her incredible journey and contributions to aviation.
In 1892, Bessie was one of 13 children born to Texas sharecroppers, George and Susan Coleman. When Bessie was just a child, her father left to search for better opportunities in Oklahoma. During that time, Susan Coleman did the best she could to support the family, but the children had to work to contribute as soon as they were old enough. When Bessie was 12, she began attending the Missionary Baptist Church School, where she proved herself to be an excellent student. She traveled to Oklahoma at the age of 18 to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University), but was only able to attend one semester due to the expense. In 1915, Bessie moved to Chicago and lived with her brothers. Her interest in aviation was sparked when she began reading about and listening to stories of World War I pilots.
Bessie’s passion for flight continued to grow, and she turned her focus to flying school. At that time, however, the United States did not allow women or African-Americans entry into flying schools. Bessie decided that studying abroad was her best option. With her sights set on a school in France, she saved her money and learned French before traveling to Paris in 1920. She studied at the renowned Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, graduating in just seven months and earning her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.
With commercial flight still more than a decade away, Bessie earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. Her specialties included stunt flying and parachuting, but her real dream was to open a flying school in the United States for other African-Americans. As she worked toward this goal, Bessie traveled the U.S., performing at air shows and other events. She was very popular, receiving praise and recognition as one of the most talented aviators of the time.
In 1926, at the age of 34, Bessie Coleman was tragically killed while rehearsing for an aerial show. While her life was cut short, her legacy lives on. She is celebrated as one of the world’s aviation pioneers and as an influential proponent of women and African-American acceptance in the field. She holds a spot in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and is also pictured in the Hall of Fame located at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.