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Who is Bessie Coleman?

Bessie Coleman was a trailblazing aviator, the first African American woman to hold a pilot's license. Defying racial and gender barriers of the early 20th century, she soared above discrimination to inspire countless others. Her legacy is a testament to determination and courage. How did her remarkable journey alter the skies forever? Join us as we explore her soaring story.
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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Bessie Coleman and why is she significant in history?

Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman and the first Native American to hold a pilot license. Born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, she broke barriers in the early 20th century, a time of significant racial and gender discrimination. Coleman's significance lies in her determination to pursue her dream of flying despite the obstacles she faced, becoming an inspiration for pilots of diverse backgrounds. Her legacy continues to encourage minorities and women in aviation.

What challenges did Bessie Coleman face in becoming a pilot?

Bessie Coleman faced the dual hurdles of racial and gender discrimination in her quest to become a pilot. In the early 1920s, no flight school in the United States would admit her due to her race and gender. Undeterred, Coleman learned French and moved to France, where she attended the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation. In 1921, she earned her international pilot's license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

How did Bessie Coleman contribute to the field of aviation after earning her pilot's license?

After earning her pilot's license, Bessie Coleman became a successful air show pilot, known for her daring aerial stunts. She used her platform to promote aviation and civil rights, refusing to participate in events that were segregated or discriminatory. Coleman also aspired to open a flight school for African Americans. Her pioneering career paved the way for a generation of diverse aviators and highlighted the need for inclusivity in the field of aviation.

What were some of Bessie Coleman's most notable achievements or recognitions?

Bessie Coleman's most notable achievement was earning her pilot's license in 1921, making her the first person of African American and Native American descent to do so. Her flying career included numerous successful air shows that captivated audiences and challenged societal norms. Posthumously, Coleman has been honored with a commemorative stamp by the United States Postal Service in 1995 and inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

How does Bessie Coleman's legacy continue to influence society today?

Bessie Coleman's legacy continues to resonate today as she remains a symbol of perseverance and courage. Her life story is taught in schools, inspiring students to overcome adversity. Organizations such as the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars and the Bessie Coleman Aerospace Legacy (BCAL) promote diversity in aviation in her honor. Annual flyovers are conducted at her grave site in Chicago to celebrate her contributions to aviation and civil rights.

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