Elizabeth (Bessie) Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of 13 children of African American parents: George Coleman, who may have had Cherokee or Choctaw grandparents and Susan Coleman. Nine of the children survived childhood, which was typical for the time. When Bessie was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where they lived as sharecroppers.
Bessie began attending school in Waxahachie at the age of six. She walked four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed her elementary education in that school.
Every season, Bessie‘s routine of school, chores and church was interrupted for her to participate in bringing in the cotton harvest. In 1901, George Coleman left his family. He moved to Oklahoma to find better opportunities, but his wife and children did not follow.
At the age of 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Bessie completed one term before her money ran out and she returned home.
In 1915, at the age of 23, Bessie moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers. She worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, where she heard stories of flying during wartime from pilots returning home from World War I. Bessie took a second job as a restaurant manager of a chili parlor to save money in hopes of becoming a pilot herself.
American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor black people, so Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, encouraged her to study abroad. Abbot publicized Bessie‘s quest in his newspaper and she received financial sponsorship from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.
Bessie‘s aviation license issued on June 15, 1921
Bessie took a French-language class at the Berlitz Language Schools in Chicago and then traveled to Paris, France, on November 20, 1920, so that she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.”
On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first black woman and first self-identified Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Bessie spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and, in September 1921, she sailed for America and became a media sensation.
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…Bessie Coleman
With the age of commercial flight still a decade or more in the future, Bessie quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the air with the then-still-novel technology of airplanes for paying audiences. But, to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Bessie could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe.
Bessie spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation. She then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess”, as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both black and white people. Bessie primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplanes and other aircraft that had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I.
Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City, and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Bessie as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.
Six weeks later, Bessie returned to Chicago, performing in an air show, this time to honor World War I’s 370th Infantry Regiment. She delivered a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers – including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome – now the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve.
The thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Bessie‘s dream. She never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something”. As a professional aviator, Bessie often would be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. She also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, Bessie broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
Committed to promoting aviation and combating racism, Bessie spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans. She absolutely refused to participate in aviation events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans.
In the 1920s, she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola on a speaking tour in Orlando, Florida. The community activists invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street in the neighborhood of Parramore.
A local street was renamed “Bessie Coleman” Street in her honor in 2013. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay, and Bessie opened a beauty shop in Orlando to earn extra money to buy her own plane.
Through her media contacts, Bessie was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school.
But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking-stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks,” wrote Doris Rich.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow and had to make three along the way because the plane had been so poorly maintained.
Upon learning this, Bessie‘s friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it, but she refused. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Bessie in the other seat. She was planning a parachute jump for the next day and was unharnessed as she needed to look over the side to examine the terrain.
About ten minutes into the flight, the plane unexpectedly went into a dive and then a spin at 3,000 feet above the ground. Bessie was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m), and was killed instantly when she hit the ground. She was 34 years old.
Wills was unable to regain control of the plane, and it plummeted to the ground. He died upon impact. The plane exploded, bursting into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls.
Funeral services were held in Florida, before her body was sent back to Chicago. While there was little mention in most media, news of Bessie‘s death was widely carried in the African-American press. Ten thousand mourners attended her ceremonies in Chicago, which were led by activist Ida B. Wells.
Bessie‘s example proved an inspiration for a number of pioneers in aeronautics and eventually astronautics, including John Robinson, Cornelius Coffey, Willa Brown, Janet Harmon Bragg, Robert H. Lawrence Jr., and Mae Jemison.