AFRICANGLOBE – Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African American descent and the first person of African-American descent to hold an international pilot license.
Elizabeth Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George and Susan Coleman. When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23. Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed all eight grades of her one-room school.
Every year, Coleman’s routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. In 1901, Coleman’s life took a dramatic turn: George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was then called, to find better opportunities, but Susan and the children did not go with him. At age 12, she was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. When she turned eighteen, Coleman took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She completed one term before her money ran out, and returned home.
In 1915, at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist, where she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was Black and a woman. No Black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from a banker named Jesse Binga and the Defender.
Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.” On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first Black American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, and the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so, but the first African-American woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921 sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.
Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess,” as she was known was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by Blacks and envied by Whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by Black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).
But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most Whites had created in their minds about Blacks”, wrote Doris Rich.
Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young Black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream”. Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of Black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.