Riots to Renaissance: Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman (1892–1926) was the first African American to become a licensed pilot. Limited by race and gender discrimination in America, she went to France to learn to fly. Born in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman headed to Chicago when she was 23 and landed a job as a manicurist. But Coleman dreamed of being a pilot — a seemingly impossible notion for a black woman of limited means. Even though no aviation school would admit her, Coleman was determined to succeed and turned to Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender for advice. Abbott told her to save her money, learn to speak French, and go to France for her training. He would help to support her and publicize her efforts. Coleman dutifully followed Abbott's advice and left for France in 1920. In 1921, after seven months of training, Coleman was awarded an international pilot's license.

On her return to the United States, Coleman was hailed as a hero by the black press. In the 1920s airplanes, not to mention female pilots, were still novelties and Coleman became a celebrity barnstormer, thrilling audiences with daring aerobatic stunts. Coleman soon became a role model for blacks across the country and used her notoriety to encourage African Americans to get involved in aviation.

On April 30, 1926, during a rehearsal flight for an air show, Coleman's plane suffered a malfunction and plummeted towards earth. Coleman, who was not strapped in, was thrown from the plane and was killed in the accident. She was 33 years old.

Bessie Coleman was a leading figure in the development of black aviation, especially in Chicago. Her passion, determination, and success inspired a generation of young fliers and her contributions continue to be remembered. Every year since 1931, Tuskegee Airmen fly over Colman's grave and drop flowers. The city has named a street in her honor, Bessie Coleman Drive, leading to O'Hare Airport, and the U.S. Postal Service has issued a stamp bearing her likeness.