Coleman was born on January 26,
1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to a large African American family
(although some histories incorrectly report 1893 or 1896).
She was one of 13 children. Her father was a Native American
and her mother an African American. Very early in her
childhood, Bessie and her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas,
where she grew up picking cotton and doing laundry for
customers with her mother.
The Coleman family, like most
African Americans who lived in the Deep South during the
early 20th century, faced many disadvantages and
difficulties. Bessie's family dealt with segregation,
disenfranchisement, and racial violence. Because of such
obstacles, Bessie's father decided to move the family to
"Indian Territory" in Oklahoma. He believed they could carve
out a much better living for themselves there. Bessie's
mother, however, did not want to live on an Indian
reservation and decided to remain in Waxahachie. Bessie, and
several of her sisters, also stayed in Texas.
Bessie was a highly motivated
individual. Despite working long hours, she still found time
to educate herself by borrowing books from a travelling
library. Although she could not attend school very often,
Bessie learned enough on her own to graduate from high
school. She then went on to study at the Colored
Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University)
in Langston, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, because of limited
finances, Bessie only attended one semester of college.
By 1915, Bessie had grown tired
of the South and moved to Chicago. There, she began living
with two of her brothers. She attended beauty school and
then started working as a manicurist in a local barbershop.
Bessie first considered
becoming a pilot after reading about aviation and watching
newsreels about flight. But the real impetus behind her
decision to become an aviator was her brother John's
incessant teasing. John had served overseas during World War
I and returned home talking about, according to historian
Doris Rich, "the superiority of French women over those of
Chicago's South Side." He even told Bessie that French women
flew airplanes and declared that flying was something Bessie
would never be able to do. John's jostling was the final
push that Bessie needed to start pursuing her pilot's
license. She immediately began applying to flight schools
throughout the country, but because she was both female and
an African American, no U.S. flight school would take her.
Soon after being turned down by
American flight schools, Coleman met Robert Abbott,
publisher of the well-known African American newspaper, the
Chicago Defender. He recommended that Coleman save some
money and move to France, which he believed was the world's
most racially progressive nation, and obtain her pilot's
license there. Coleman quickly heeded Abbott's advice and
quit her job as a manicurist to begin work as the manager of
a chili parlour, a more lucrative position. She also started
learning French at night. In November 1920, Bessie took her
savings and sailed for France. She also received some
additional funds from Abbott and one of his friends.
Coleman attended the well-known
Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France.
There she learned to fly using French Nieuport airplanes. On
June 15, 1921, Coleman obtained her pilot's license from
Federation Aeronautique Internationale after only seven
months. She was the first black woman in the world to earn
an aviator's license. After some additional training in
Paris, Coleman returned to the United States in September
Coleman's main goals when she
returned to America were to make a living flying and to
establish the first African American flight school. Because
of her color and gender, however, she was somewhat limited
in her first goal. Barnstorming seemed to be the only way
for her to make money, but to become an aerial daredevil,
Coleman needed more training. Once again, Bessie applied to
American flight schools, and once again they rejected her.
So in February 1922, she returned to Europe. After learning
most of the standard barnstorming tricks, Coleman returned
to the United States.
Bessie flew in her first air
show on September 3, 1922, at Glenn Curtiss Field in Garden
City, New York. The show, which was sponsored by the Chicago
Defender, was a promotional vehicle to spotlight Coleman.
Bessie became a celebrity, thanks to the help of her
benefactor Abbott. She subsequently began touring the
country giving exhibitions, flight lessons, and lectures.
During her travels, she strongly encouraged African
Americans and women to learn to fly.
In February 1923, Coleman
suffered her first major accident while preparing for an
exhibition in Los Angeles; her Jenny airplane's engine
unexpectedly stalled and she crashed. Knocked unconscious by
the accident, Coleman received a broken leg, some cracked
ribs, and multiple cuts on her face. Shaken badly by the
incident, it took her over a year to recover fully.
Coleman started performing
again full time in 1925. On June 19, she dazzled thousands
as she "barrel-rolled" and "looped-the-loop" over Houston's
Aerial Transport Field. It was her first exhibition in her
home state of Texas, and even local whites attended,
although they watched from separate segregated bleachers.
Even though Coleman realized
that she had to work within the general confines of southern
segregation, she did try to use her fame to challenge racial
barriers, if only a little. Soon after her Houston show,
Bessie returned to her old hometown of Waxahachie to give an
exhibition. As in Houston, both whites and African Americans
wanted to attend the event and plans called for segregated
facilities. Officials even wanted whites and African
Americans to enter the venue through separate "white" and
"Negro" admission gates, but Coleman refused to perform
under such conditions. She demanded only one admission gate.
After much negotiation, Coleman got her way and Texans of
both races entered the air field through the same gate, but
then separated into their designated sections once inside.
Coleman's aviation career ended
tragically in 1926. On April 30, she died while preparing
for a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Coleman was riding in
the passenger seat of her "Jenny" airplane while her
mechanic William Wills was piloting the aircraft. Bessie was
not wearing her seat belt at the time so that she could lean
over the edge of the cockpit and scout potential parachute
landing spots (she had recently added parachute-jumping to
her repertoire and was planning to perform the feat the next
day). But while Bessie was scouting from the back seat, the
plane suddenly dropped into a steep nosedive and then
flipped over and catapulted her to her death. Wills, who was
still strapped into his seat, struggled to regain control of
the aircraft, but died when he crashed in a nearby field.
After the accident, investigators discovered that Wills, who
was Coleman's mechanic, had lost control of the aircraft
because a loose wrench had jammed the plane's instruments.
Coleman's impact on aviation
history, and particularly African Americans, quickly became
apparent following her death. Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs
suddenly sprang up throughout the country. On Labour Day,
1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American
Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators.
That same year, a group of African American pilots
established an annual flyover of Coleman's grave in Lincoln
Cemetery in Chicago. Coleman's name also began appearing on
buildings in Harlem.
Despite her relatively short
career, Bessie Coleman strongly challenged early 20th
century stereotypes about white supremacy and the
inabilities of women. By becoming the first licensed African
American female pilot, and performing throughout the
country, Coleman proved that people did not have to be
shackled by their gender or the colour of their skin to
succeed and realize their dreams.