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Who is Bessie Coleman?

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco

Bessie Coleman, known also as "Queen Bess," was born on 26 January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, into a family of thirteen children of mixed Native American and African American ancestry. Her family was extremely poor and worked in the cotton fields, which somewhat affected Coleman's early education.

Bessie Coleman was expected to adjust to the times and become a housewife or adopt a traditionally female career. However, Coleman had other ideas. She enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University but dropped out because of lack of money; Bessie Coleman then moved to Chicago, where she worked odd jobs in supermarkets, beauty salons, and barbershops.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The idea of becoming a pilot struck Bessie Coleman early on, as she became friends with military pilots and local aviation experts that frequented the barbershop where she worked. When no American flying school wanted to take her on as a student because of her race and sex, Bessie Coleman packed up her things and moved to Paris.

After obtaining a pilot license, Bessie Coleman returned to America, where she became involved in air shows and flying competitions. The fact that she was a black woman who could fly made her an instant celebrity. She became known around the country, and made frequent appearances in radio and newspapers. She died on 30 April 1926, when she was practicing for a show on her own plane. She was flying along with her mechanic, who was actually the only one to die when the plane crashed to the ground. Coleman, who wasn't wearing her seatbelt, was thrown out of the plane.

Bessie Coleman is one of the few historical celebrities whose fame did not fade after her death. She was inducted to the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame, had her face appeared in postal stamps and official publications, and became the symbol for women's rights to those attempting to break into non-traditional careers. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in 1929 especially to teach women of color who would not be admitted to traditional schools.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books