Bessie Coleman was the First African American Pilot in America

By Henry M. Holden         

back side of the 25-cent coin featuring Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1893, the 12th of 13 children born to a former slave. Her mother motivated her and instilled a driving force that helped her fight overwhelming odds, blatant racism, and sexism to become the first licensed black American pilot.

From an early age her mother urged her to “become somebody.” Although her mother could not read, she managed to borrow books from a traveling library, hoping that somehow Bessie could teach herself to read. “I did,” said Coleman, “and I found a brand new world in the written word. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to learn so badly that I finished high school;something unusual for a black woman in those days. The teachers I had tried so hard. I don’t wish to make it sound easy, but I decided I wanted to go to college too. Since my mother could not afford college, I took in laundry and ironing to save up the tuition money.”

When Coleman thought she had enough saved, she enrolled in Langston Industrial College (now Langston University, Oklahoma). She seriously underestimated the expenses and her money lasted only one semester. When she realized she could not go on, she became depressed, moved to Chicago to live with her older brother, and found work as a manicurist.

Coleman said, “I guess it was the newspapers reporting on the air war in Europe that got me interested in flying. I was an avid reader and searched the libraries looking for information on flying. I think all the articles I read finally convinced me I should be up there flying and not just reading about it. So, I started searching for a flying school. “At first, I thought it would be easy, just walk in and sign up. I didn’t realize that I had two strikes against me. I remember hearing of a few women pilots before the war, but I had never seen one. The other strike against me was my color.”

Bessie said, “I refused to take no for an answer. My mother’s words always gave me strength to overcome obstacles. I knew someone important and decided to see if he could use his influence to get me into a flying school.”

Robert S. Abbott, the founder and editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender, was very enthusiastic about Coleman’s idea, but also pessimistic. After an exhaustive search of the flying schools in the country, he concluded that there were some who would teach a woman, but there were none that would teach a black woman. “He did have a ray of hope,” said Coleman. “He told me that Feance had more liberal attitudes toward women and people of color and suggested I study French.” 

Coleman took Abbott’s advice and went to night school. In a few months, she learned enough French and saved enough money to travel to Europe. Again, she underestimated the cost and her money ran out. She came back to America and found a job in a chili restaurant, but she would not let go of her dream. 

Coleman went back to Europe again in 1921. This time, she had more money and went looking for the best instructor she could find. Coleman learned to fly with the chief pilot of the world-famous aircraft manufacturer, Tony Fokker. Fokker said she had skill and what he called a natural ability. He encouraged her and was anxious for her to succeed. Coleman earned her license on June 15, 1921.

“I returned to the United States with my air-pilot license from the Federation Aeronautique International. I was the first black licensed pilot in the world. I had grand dreams, but I was a realist. If I could have a minimum of my desires, I would have no regrets,” Coleman said. Having reached her first goal, she set a new one.  Coleman voiced it this way: “I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly. I needed money for this, so I began giving flying exhibitions and lecturing on aviation. The color of my skin, at first a drawback, now drew large crowds wherever I went. At first I was a curiosity, but soon the public discovered I could really fly.”

When Coleman went back to Texas, she ran into an age-old problem. At one of her exhibitions, the officials refused to let the blacks in the same entrance as the whites. “I wasn’t going to let them humiliate my people, who were coming to see me. I told them I would not fly until they let the blacks through the same gate as the whites.” The officials yielded to her demand, but still separated the blacks inside. She didn’t have enough clout to force that issue.

Like many of the early aviators, Coleman had several accidents. Her first occurred in 1924, in California, while doing an advertisement for the Firestone Rubber Company. The accident did not stop her; she continued giving air shows. She began attracting national attention. Nothing stopped her, not even discouragement from her friends and family. Even after witnessing the death of a student pilot, and herself suffering a broken leg and several broken ribs in a crash, she would not quit.

On April 30, 1926, with almost enough money saved to open her school, she had another accident. This time it was fatal. Bessie was performing in a May Day exhibition in Orlando, Florida, for the Negro Welfare League. At 7:30 p.m., accompanied by her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, Bessie took her plane up for a test flight. Wills had taken the plane up on a test flight a week earlier and had landed twice because of engine trouble.

Coleman was in the air barely ten minutes, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, when she put the plane into a 110-mile per hour power dive. The plane suddenly flipped over, and Bessie, who neither fastened her seat belt, nor wore a parachute, was thrown from the plane and plunged to her death. Wills, trapped in the plane, died upon impact. Minutes after the crash, a bystander lit a cigarette and unthinkingly tossed the lighted match to the ground, igniting the spilled gasoline. The wreckage went up in flames. No one knows why Bessie did not fasten her seat belt or did not wear a parachute, but a later investigation found a wrench jamming her controls. 

Was the misplaced wrench the fault of a careless William Wills? Some have suggested more than an accident. Bessie Coleman was an articulate black woman who had a dream for her people, and was, therefore, a threat.

Bessie’s friends returned her body to Chicago, the city she loved. On the tenth anniversary of her death, Abbott wrote an editorial in the Chicago Weekly Defender. He said, “Though with the crashing of the plane life ceased for Bessie Coleman, she inspired enough members of her race by her courage to carry on in aviation and what they accomplish will stand as a memorial to Miss Coleman.”

In 1995, U.S. postage stamp was issued in her honor, and in 2023 a twenty-five-cent coin was issued with her likeness. 

 

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