Bessie Coleman
(1892-1926)

The air is the only place free from prejudices.

I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of our Race who are so far behind the White race in this modern study.
–Bessie Coleman


Born 1896 in Atlanta, Texas, she was the twelfth of thirteen children. Growing up in a world of poverty and discrimination, Coleman left the South and headed to Chicago determined to make something of herself. Discovering that there was no more opportunity for black people in Chicago than in the South, Coleman became enamored with aviation and decided to become a pilot. Being black and a woman, it was no easy task but Bessie Coleman became the first black woman ever to fly an airplane and the first African American to earn an international pilot's license.

At age seven, Coleman's father, part Native American, left his family to fend for themselves when he returned to Oklahoma Indian Territory. Coleman's childhood involved domestic responsibilities and helping her mother do laundry as well as picking cotton to augment the family income. Displaying an aptitude for mathematics, she avoided the back-breaking work of picking cotton and was assigned to keep the books. After graduation from high school, she was unable to find acceptable work and, not content with her life in Texas, migrated to Chicago as many blacks did at the time.

Joining her brothers in Chicago, Coleman eschewed the domestic and factory jobs traditionally assigned to black women in the labor force. Instead, she trained as a manicurist and worked at a barbershop. In this male environment, where she became enthralled with the exploits of pilots returning from World War I and her brothers' stories of French women pilots, she decided to become a pilot. At the time, very few women had aviator's licenses and, in addition, these women were white and wealthy. Coleman tried to enroll in aviation schools, but was summarily rejected on the basis of her race and gender. She enlisted the help of Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender, who proposed that she stood a better chance to be accepted at a flying school in Europe. Coleman studied French, saved her money and, supplemented by funds from Abbott and another African American philanthropist, Jesse Binga, headed to France. | Continued
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Books

African-American Aviators, Stanley P. Jones & L. Octavia Tripp, Capstone Press, 1998.
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Bessie Coleman: First Black Woman Pilot, Connie Plantz, Enslow Publishers Inc., 2001.
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Black Eagles: African Americans in Aviation, Jim Haskins, Scholastic Trade, 1995.
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Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (eds.), Indiana University Press, 1994.
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Book of Black Heroes: Great Women in the Struggle, Toyomi Igus (ed.), Just Us Books, 1991.
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Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Doris L. Rich, Smithsonian Instution Press, 1995.
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Search for 'Bessie Coleman' on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.
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Links

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