Over a century ago, an icon named Bessie Coleman was born. Bessie was the world’s first African American woman pilot, and the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. Born in January of 1892, she entered our world with an innate yearning to “amount to something,” no matter the odds stacked against her. And those odds stood substantially against her, both as an African/Native American and a female of the South before the era of Civil Rights in America.
While the Emancipation Proclamation was set into effect, African Americans were still fighting an uphill battle at the turn of the century in order to gain their basic rights as citizens of the United States. Turmoil stirred throughout the black communities as racism grew rampantly with the rise of the violent extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the enforcement of “Jim Crow laws” leading to segregation in public facilities. With little to no rights, most blacks were subjected to a life poverty and in order to have any chance at livelihood many black Southerners took jobs on White-owned lands as sharecroppers, reverting back to a life of slavery under the guise of “indebtedness.”
As the child of sharecroppers, Bessie by no means had a ticket to success. In a world where every right was being pried away and people were dying left and right due to the color of their skin, her story brings about a true lesson of tenacity and the power of having a dream.
Throughout her early years, Bessie would walk four miles to and from school, which was an all-black one-room shack with hardly any teaching supplies. Only being allowed to reach eighth grade, she went above and beyond in her studies expressing her drive to succeed very early on by excelling in math and English.
Being fed up with the limits imposed on African Americans in the South, Bessie’s father ended up making the hard decision to leave the family for Oklahoma in search of better opportunities. Most of her brothers ended up fleeing the South as well, leaving her mom, herself, and her four sisters to fend for themselves. She took charge as the mother of the household, as her own had to work heavy hours in order to keep the family afloat.
Bessie finally took the leap of faith in 1915 to move to Chicago, finding refuge at her brother’s home. The city had been praised by The Chicago Defender as a promising escape from the scrutiny of the South. African Americans created “The Stroll”, which comprised of the streets between 26th and 39th. It was filled with jazz, artists, restaurants, beauty shops, and more – only rivaling New Yorks Harlem neighborhood in terms of black humanity on the rise. Bessie took hold fast to the opportunities displayed in her new neighborhood, perfecting her skills as a beautician.
Bessie’s time spent in Chicago also paralleled the height of World War I. Her brothers by that time had joined the military, finding themselves stationed in France. She would tune into the radio consistently and fill her daydreams with the stories of pilots returning from war and the awe-inspiring tales that followed them. When her brothers returned from war, they further ignited her fire for aviation when they boasted of the French female pilots. The war tales coupled with her brother’s taunts of the “superior” French women created a goal that could not be deterred in Bessie’s heart.
Female African American pilots were unheard of in the United States, so it was no wonder that every aviation academy Bessie approached would end up denying her admittance. Thinking back to those French pilots, Bessie pursued a local French class. She went on learning the language - immersing and solidifying her determination to learn aviation, even if that meant going abroad.
With her sights set to learn to fly in France, Bessie saved every nickel and dime and networked with her idols to gain sponsorships and financial backing to achieve that goal. Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, was a prominent influencer in the fight for African American rights and mobilization in society. He became one of Bessie’s biggest supporters, pushing her to pursue her dream and hailing her as an inspiration to the black community in Chicago.
In 1920, Bessie arrived in France and enrolled in a ten-month course at one of the most prominent aviation schools in France, Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudon. Being the only non-white student in her class, she would learn to fly on a training aid that was known to fail often – a French Nieuport Type 82. One of her classmates tragically crashed during the training, which inevitably shook Bessie’s nerves. Undoubtedly, she continued through her training, finishing her training three months early and becoming the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.
Bessie returned to America after several more months of extra training for shows and entertainment aviatrix. News of the first African American female pilot grew to headlines upon her arrival. Her first big show, sponsored by Abbott, would bill her as “the world’s greatest woman flyer”. Thousands of people from all different races and backgrounds would attend her heart thrilling stunt shows. Staying true to herself, Bessie would deny any performances that wouldn’t allow African-Americans to attend.
Her biggest mission in life was to create an aviation school in America that would open its doors to all races and genders. She became an overall inspiration to African Americans and women in general to go beyond and reach for their dreams, no matter the boundaries presented in plain sight. She would frequent stages and institutions to encourage African Americans to explore the field of aviation.
In 1926, Bessie saved enough money from her shows and a beauty parlor she opened in Orlando to buy a vintage warplane. The plane had reportedly been worn and poorly maintained prior to her purchasing it. The pilot who delivered the plane to Bessie, days before a scheduled show, had to make three emergency stops on the way to Florida. The benefit show was to be in just a few days, so Bessie continued on with the plane and the plan.
She and the mechanic prepared for a trial flight in Jacksonville the day before the show in order to map out the best locations for her exhibition. Bessie was used to taking off her seat belt and leaning out of the plane to survey areas, so upon regular routine, she performed the same maneuver, but this time the plane dived and flipped due to mechanical failure, sending the plane and the mechanic plummeting 3,500 feet and Bessie ejected out the window. Both were killed during this tragic incident on April 30, 1926. Bessie was only 34 years old.
Her legacy lives on far beyond her years, however. She never would be able to personally open an aviation institute undivided by race, but her impact would lead to that and far greater to play into existence. In the years following, people such as William J. Powell would strive to make Bessie’s dreams come to life. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club founded in Los Angeles and Bessie Coleman Aviators Club founded by African American women pilots were established to encourage African Americans and women to learn aviation while honoring Bessie’s struggles and triumphs to pave the way.
As we remember Bessie Coleman, we celebrate all of the victories accomplished from her life and from her legacy. Originating from a life with close to nothing but a dream, Bessie pursued the seemingly intangible, serving as a figure to all others who felt like they had no options. Throughout her fight to succeed, her story proves that with determination and an optimistic attitude toward circumstances that anything is possible.
Her lessons still resonate a century later, an inspiration to all Petrolettes and Petrolettes-to-be as an example of living life full of adventure, dreams, and the pursuit to achieve all her goals. Whether it be aviation, riding, driving, or sailing, keep the desire to “amount to something” and give it all your heart.
Kristen is an old soul. Generous and kind, she is forever pushing her own boundaries and encouraging greatness in others. When she isn’t riding bikes, she’s under them (she’s a trained motorcycle mechanic, and could teach you more than a thing or two). Kristen is IVV’s Content Editor and US correspondent, bringing tales of her adventures across the interwebs to inspire and invigorate.