Bessie Coleman was the first African American female pilot; known as ‘Brave Bessie’ she was determined to achieve her dreams despite the obstacles in her way.
Bessie was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas; a time and a place where being black made life very difficult. Black and white children were not allowed to go to the same school so Bessie had to walk four miles every day just to get to the school that was for the black children. Each year her learning would be interrupted in the summer when she had to work in the cotton fields with her family at harvest time. Despite all this, she thrived at school, reading all she could and excelling at maths.
When she was 18 Bessie went to college, keen to keep learning, but the money she had saved was only enough to pay for one term and sadly she had to return home to her family again.
In 1916, now 23 years old, Bessie packed her bags and moved to Chicago where she lived with her two brothers. She found a job in a beauty parlour painting nails!
As men started to return from the First World War they told her stories of their time away. She heard about the aeroplanes they had used in the war, and her brothers joked with her about the French women who had learned to fly. Something sparked in Bessie’s mind; from a young age she had vowed to herself that she would ‘amount to something’, and when she heard about these female pilots she felt sure that she too should learn to fly.
Determined that she would do exactly that, Bessie looked for someone who could teach her how to fly a plane. But there was no-one; no flying school in America would accept her: because she was black and because she was a woman.
Many people may have given up, but not Bessie Coleman. A friend she had made called Robert Abbot gave her the idea that if no-one in America would teach her to fly, maybe she should go to France and learn there. He even offered to giver her some money to help her get there. Of course, if Bessie was to go to France to learn how to fly, it would help if she understood what they were saying. So she spent the next few months studying hard, learning how to speak French. She got a new job in a chilli restaurant and saved every penny she could to achieve her dream of flying. In 1920 she packed her bags and off she went to Paris!
On June 15th, 1921 she received her pilot’s licence, making her the first African American licensed pilot in the world! Elated she returned to America and was greeted by lots of journalists as she arrived home.
Although Bessie had got her pilot’s licence, it wasn’t easy to make any money flying unless you knew how to do some tricks! So off she went again, back to Europe, this time visiting France, Germany and the Netherlands to meet other pilots and learn incredible flying stunts like the loop-the-loop!
Once back in America again she began flying in amazing shows, performing her aeroplane stunts, and even parachuting from her plane on occasion! For the next five years she became famous, and more and more people heard of ‘Queen Bess’.
Many places in America still separated the black and white people; Bessie refused to fly at shows in any areas that wouldn’t allow black people in the audience, and insisted that everyone who wanted to watch was allowed to come through the same gate (in some segregated areas black people were allowed to go to the shows, but had to use a different entrance.) She also began to give inspiring speeches and lectures in the different places that she went to, encouraging others that they could achieve their dreams.
She had achieved so much, but she had one more dream she really hoped to see come true: she wanted to open her own flying school for other African Americans, so that they too would be able to experience the thrill of flying. She said “You have never lived until you have flown.”
In 1926 Bessie bought herself a plane; it wasn’t brand new, as she couldn’t afford that, so she got a much older plane. Unfortunately the plane was faulty because it was so old and in a practice flight for a show the plane controls got stuck. It was her last ever flight; sadly both her and her co-pilot died in the accident.
Although Bessie never lived to see her dream of a flying school happen, her friends didn’t forget about it. In 1929 Lieutenant William Powell started the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, both men and women were allowed to join to learn how to take to the skies. He said “Because of Bessie Coleman we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream”.
Find out more:
Check out the official Bessie Coleman website here.
Download our Bessie Coleman factsheet to introduce the story of Bessie’s life to children.
Watch my video about Bessie’s life: