While the world was enraptured with Amelia Earhart’s story as she began her own aviation legacy starting in the mid-1920s, the story of another historic female pilot would end in the mid-1920s. Bessie Coleman is known for being the first African American and Native American female pilot, but her story is rarely told beyond that. Coleman endured racism and sexism, holding her back from her dreams for most of her life, but she finally made her dreams a reality after devoting her life to becoming a pilot.
Stuck in America
Bessie Coleman’s life started off average and mundane; she was born into a sharecropping family in Texas. She picked cotton and washed laundry, saving money to eventually attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University when she turned eighteen (Alexander). Her college career was short-lived as she could not afford more than one semester, so her next step in life would be moving to Chicago with her brothers.
After hearing stories of soldiers who returned from World War I travel, her brothers pointed out that French women were better than African American women because French women could learn to fly. Following this taunt from her brothers, she applied to many flight schools throughout the United States, but no one would accept her because she was a woman and African American.
Working as a beautician in a local barbershop, Coleman met Robert Abbott, the Chicago Defender publisher. Abbott simply told Coleman to move to France and learn to fly there. Learning French at school in Chicago, Coleman gathered her savings, and with additional financial support from Abbott, she was ready to go to France.
From France to America
Coleman was in France for seven months and was the only person of color in her aviation class. She was taught in a biplane that was known to fail frequently, which some may view as a form of discrimination (PBS). During this short training time span, Coleman even witnessed a classmate’s death due to a plane crash, but she kept on pushing. Finally, in June 1921, Coleman earned her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Upon her return to the United States, Coleman was a celebrity. She was invited to attend an all-black musical, Shuffle Along, at which the audience and the orchestra gave Coleman a standing ovation. For the remainder of her life, she performed air shows all around the country. Coleman knew the power she had as she made history as the first black female pilot and wanted to encourage other African Americans to break society’s mold. She rejected the offers to perform at locations that would not admit guests of color to watch her shows.
Her Legacy Lives On
The whirlwind of events that followed Coleman’s return to the United States ended with an abrupt halt. During a test flight with her mechanic, a malfunction caused the plane to turn upside down and crash from a lethal height (Chicago Defender). Coleman was thrown from the plane because she did not have a seatbelt on, and her mechanic, William Wills, a white man, went down with the plane.
While the two were more than likely aware that such a tragic event could happen in the dangerous field of aviation, it was an unfortunate end, nonetheless. However, in a way, the pair’s devotion to the sport is poetic because they met the same fate, a black woman and a white man, in a world that treated them so differently.
Creating such a marvelous life from nothing is an inspiration to anyone, but the additional obstacles she was faced with, racism and sexism, are even more inspirational to those affected by these obstacles today. While Coleman lived an unfortunately short life, she lived a greatly impactful life. Her goal was to be more than the average African American in the United States, farming from one generation to the next. She wanted to inspire other women and African Americans to break from the expectations and restraints of society. I think she continues to do a fine job inspiring those who hear her story.
Alexander, Kerri. “Bessie Coleman.” National Women’s History Museum, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman.
“Bessie Coleman.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/.
“Bessie Coleman and William Wills.” Wills and Coleman | Bessie Coleman – Aviatrix, Chicago Defender, www.bessiecoleman.org/wills-coleman.php.