Bessie Coleman was the first black aviatrix in the United States. She was also the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s licence – even though no American flight school would accept her due to her skin colour.

Born in 1892, Bessie Coleman grew up in a segregated America. Everyday discrimination was deeply anchored in society and the law. African Americans were not allowed to vote and were required to sit in special sections in buses and restaurants.

Despite this, Bessie Coleman was determined to pursue a career path dominated by white men. While working at a salon, the 23-year-old overheard the stories pilots told when they returned from the First World War and decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

However, no flight school in the United States would accept a young black woman. In the hope of being able to pursue her chosen career in France, Coleman learned French. In November 1920, she travelled to France and earned her pilot’s license within a year.

Bessie Coleman, Pilots Licence, 1921

After returning to the US, Coleman participated in her first flight show on Long Island. Afterwards, she took part in shows across the entire country. “The colour of my skin, at first a drawback, now drew large crowds wherever I went. At first, I was a curiosity, but soon the public discovered I could really fly. Then they came to see ‘Brave Bessie’, as they called me,” she later told one journalist.

Coleman became so popular that she was invited to collaborate on a biographical film about her life. Although she initially said yes, she later left the filming because she felt the presentation of blacks was too clichéd.

On 30th of April 1926, Coleman was flying to Jacksonville, Florida, with her mechanic and PR agent William Wills at the controls. She wasn’t wearing her safety belt as she wanted to peer out of the cockpit at the terrain below to help plan for a parachute jump the next day. Suddenly, the plane went into a tailspin and crashed. Coleman was thrown from the cockpit. Both she and Wills were killed.

Some 10,000 people attended her funeral at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, and she received a variety of posthumous honours: jazz saxophonist Johnny Hodges recorded the song Good Queen Bess in 1940; her portrait appeared on a United States Postal Service postage stamp in 1955; and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club for black pilots was founded in 1977.

Bessie Coleman, who was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006, has become an icon of aviation history. Shortly before her death, the Texan opened the first flight school in the US that would also accept black Americans. In an interview she said: “I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”


Previous History Hour installments: