What follows is a brief and engaging video journey back into early aviation history to meet Bessie Coleman, the first woman pilot of African American and Native American descent, who earned her pilot’s license 100 years ago this June.
Bessie Elizabeth Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, the tenth child of 13. Coleman—portrayed in the four-minute video (and in a longer live performance) by her real-life grandniece, Gigi Coleman-Brooms—reminisces about how her father, George Coleman, always assured her that she could so anything she dreamed of doing.
At age 6, Bessie Coleman started school, which meant walking three miles one way—a nearer school was not open to her because of segregation.
She loved school. “I was an avid reader, and I loved mathematics,” Gigi-as-Bessie Coleman says, telling the audience that as she grew up, she worked hard and saved money to attend college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, she could only afford one semester.
At age 23, she moved to Chicago, staying with two of her brothers and finding work as a beautician. Her brothers told her stories of their experiences in France during World War I. They teased her about what women in France were doing, informing her that “they’re even flying airplanes.”
Bessie had been pondering goals for her future; when she heard that women in France were soaring in the sky as pilots, she knew what she wanted to do.
However, “She applied to many flight schools across the country, but no school would take her because she was both African American and a woman,” notes a biography of her posted online by the National Women’s History Museum.
At the barbershop where she worked, Bessie Coleman had met newspaper publisher Robert Abbott, who encouraged her to go to France to pursue her dream of flying. She took French classes at night to get ready—and so began a legendary journey in the history of aviation.
June 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of Bessie Coleman earning her international pilot’s license issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. (Two years later, Amelia Earhart would be issued a pilot’s license by the same authority.)
The biography notes that as she gained renown at performing aerobatics, nicknames were bestowed on her such as “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.”
Bessie Coleman’s career was cut short in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 30, 1926,
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