Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1895. Her mother
was African American. Her father was part African American and part American
Indian. Her family was poor. Bessie had to walk more than six kilometers to go
to school. When she was nine years old, her father left the family to search in
Oklahoma for the territory of his Indian ancestors.
In Texas then, as in most areas of the American South, black people were
treated unfairly. They lived separately from white people and established their
own religious, business and social traditions. Bessie was proud of her race. She
learned that from her hard-working and religious mother.
Bessie had to pick cotton and wash clothes to help earn money for her family.
She was able to save a little money and went to college in the state of
Oklahoma. She was in college only one year. She had to leave because she did not
have enough money to complete her studies. But during that year, she learned
about flying. She read about the first flight of the Wright Brothers and the
first American female pilot, Harriet Quimby. Bessie often thought about what it
would feel like to fly like a bird.
When she was 23, Bessie Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois to live
with two of her older brothers. There, she worked at several jobs. But she
wanted to do something more important. She heard stories from pilots who were
returning from World War One. She decided she was going to learn how to fly
airplanes. She soon found this to be almost impossible. What flight school
would admit a black woman?
She found that apparently there were none in the United States. Bessie
learned that she would have a better chance in Europe. She began to study French
at a language school in Chicago. She also took a higher-paying job supervising a
public eating place so she could save money.
Soon after the end of World War 1, Bessie Coleman left for France. She
attended the famous flight school, Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudron, in the
town of Le Crotoy in northern France. She learned to fly in a plane that had two
sets of wings, one over the other. She completed seven months of flight
training. Coleman earned her international permit to fly in nineteen twenty-one
from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France. She became the first
black woman ever to earn an international pilot's license.
Coleman returned to Chicago. She was the only black female pilot in the
United States. So her story became popular in African American newspapers. She
was asked by the Dallas Express newspaper in Texas why she wanted to fly. She
said that women and blacks must have pilots if they are to keep up with the
times. She added: "Do you know you have never lived until you have flown. "
Coleman soon learned that it was difficult for anyone to earn enough money as
a pilot to live. She knew she would have to improve her flying skills and learn
to do more tricks in the air if she wanted to succeed. There still was no one
willing to teach her in Chicago. So, she returned to Europe in nineteen
twenty-two. She completed about four more months of flight training with French
and German pilots.
Coleman returned to New York where she gave her first public flying
performance in the United States. A large crowd of people gathered to watch
her. She rolled the plane. And she stopped the engine and then started it again
just before the plane landed. The crowd loved her performance. So did other
crowds as she performed in towns and cities across the country.
Bessie Coleman had proved she could fly. Yet she wanted to do more. She hoped
to establish a school for black pilots in the United States. She knew she needed
a plane of her own. She traveled to Los Angeles, California, where she sought
the support of a company that sold tires. The company helped her buy a Curtiss
JN-Four airplane, commonly called a Jenny. In return, she was to represent the
company at public events.
Bessie Coleman organized an air show in Los Angeles. But the Jenny's engine
stopped soon after take-off, and the plane crashed to the ground. Coleman
suffered a broken leg and other injuries. She regretted the accident and felt
she had disappointed her supporters. She sent a message: "Tell them all that as
soon as I can walk I'm going to fly!"
Coleman returned to Chicago where she continued her plan to open a flying
school. She had very little money, no job and no plane, yet she opened an office
in Chicago. She soon found it was impossible to keep the office open without
more financial support. So she decided to return to flying.
In 1925, Bessie Coleman traveled to her home state of Texas.
The former cotton picker and beauty technician now was the only licensed black
woman pilot in the world. She could speak French. And she was an international
To earn money, Bessie Coleman gave speeches and showed films of her flights.
She did this in churches, theaters and at local all-black public schools. She
organized more air shows. She soon had enough money to pay for some of the cost
of a plane of her own, another old Curtiss Jenny. She continued her speeches and
air shows in the state of Georgia, then in Florida. She hoped to earn enough
money to open her school.
In Florida, Coleman met Edwin Beeman, whose father was the head of a huge
chewing gum company. Mr. Beeman gave her the money to make the final payment on
her plane in Dallas. Coleman made plans to have it flown to her in Jacksonville,
Florida. A young white pilot, William Wills, made the trip.
But the old Jenny had problems. Wills had to make two stops during the short
flight to repair the plane. Local pilots who examined the plane were surprised
he had been able to fly it so far.
On April 13th, 1926, Coleman was preparing for an air
show in which she would star. She agreed to make the flight with William Wills.
He flew the plane so she could clearly see the field she would fly over.
She did not use any safety devices, such as a seat belt or parachute. They
would have prevented her from leaning over to see all of the field. During the
flight, the plane's controls became stuck. The plane turned over in the air.
Nothing was holding Coleman in. She fell more than a kilometer to her death.
Wills had worn a seat belt. But he also died when the plane crashed.
Officials later found the cause of the accident. A tool had slid into the
controls of the plane. Experts said that the accident would not have happened if
Wills and Coleman had been flying a newer and safer plane.
Throughout her life, Bessie Coleman had resisted society's restrictions
against blacks and women. She believed that the air is the only place where
everyone is free. She wanted to teach other black people about that special
It took some time until her wish was fulfilled. It was not until nineteen
thirty-nine that black students were permitted to enter civilian flight schools
in the United States.
It was not until the Second World War that black male pilots were sent into
battle. And, it was not until nineteen eighty that the first black women
completed military pilot training in the United States.
Bessie Coleman did not live to establish her own flying school. But she had
said that if she could create the minimum of her plans and desires, she would
have no regrets. She had accepted the dangers of her job because she loved
Her influence continues today. In 1992, the Chicago City
Council passed a resolution praising her. It said: "Bessie Coleman continues to
inspire untold thousands, even millions of young persons with her sense of
adventure, her positive attitude and her determination to succeed. " In
nineteen thirty-four, Lieutenant William Powell wrote a book called "Black
Wings." He wrote: "Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was
much worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves
and dared to dream. "