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BESSIE COLEMAN

PILOT (1893-1926)

Bessie Coleman broke racial and sexual barriers in her short aviation career.  She grew up in the Texas cottonfields.  When poverty kept her from attending college, she moved to Chicago where she worked as a manicurist.  It was there that she saw her first air show.  The excitement and thrills offered by stunt pilots barnstorming sparked her interest and from then on Bessie's goal were clear: to learn to fly and to have a financially successful aviation career that would enable her to open a flying school for Blacks.  She soon found that it seemed to be an impossible dream because racial and sexual prejudices barred her from all American flight schools.  Following the advice of Robert S. Abbott, a Chicago newspaper publisher, she saved her money and took night classes, learning to read and speak French.  Rejected in America, Bessie went to France and there earned the first International Pilots License issued to a Black woman. 

Bessie returned to America in 1921 yearning to open a flight school for young Blacks.  She believed "the air is the only place free from prejudices."  As the only Black women to hold a pilots license at a time when there were few women pilots, Bessie turned her disadvantage of race into an asset, and quickly achieved celebrity status.  Her picture and accomplishments appeared on newsreels at movie theatres.   She was a featured performer at air shows from coast to coast and she gave lectured encouraging Blacks to become interested in aviation.  By 1926 Bessie was close to having the money needed to open a school, "Brave Bessie" as the press labeled her, never saw her final dream come true.  She died in a crash at a Jacksonville, Florida air show in April, 1926.  It was a great personal sacrifice that she pursued her dream.  Her life was a quest for equality in the air.  For that she wrote, "Whatever happens, there shall be no regrets."

Revised: July 18, 2013.