On this day in 1892, Bessie Coleman is born to a poor sharecropping family in Atlanta, Texas. She would later become the first black aviator to receive a license from the renowned Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Her father was part Cherokee, so she was also the first person of American Indian heritage to achieve that status.
Bessie wasn’t supposed to become an aviator, of course. In that day and age, her race and gender should have shut down that possibility. But Bessie was never one to take “no” for an answer.
Bessie’s childhood wasn’t easy. Her father left the family, leaving Bessie’s mom to support their children. Poverty couldn’t change the fact that Bessie was ambitious! She wanted to “amount to something,” as she would later say. She tried to attend college, but she ran out of money and was unable to finish. She soon moved to Chicago, where two of her brothers lived.
Her brothers would change the course of Bessie’s life. They’d served in World War I, and she became intrigued by the stories they would tell of the military pilots. At some point, one of her brothers reportedly teased her: “I know something that French women do that you’ll never do—Fly!”
Naturally, that was enough to convince Bessie that she WOULD fly! She wanted her pilots’ license, one way or another. She needed to get to France where her gender and race were less of an obstacle.
Her task had just become twice as hard. She needed to learn French so she could learn to fly. Naturally, she figured out French—and she kept working hard to save as much money as she could. Late in 1920, she left for France. It would take every ounce of her savings (and a little help from some philanthropists), but she was ready to attend aviation school.
She earned her international pilots’ license by completing a 10-month flight course in only 7 months. Before too long, she realized that the license wasn’t enough: She would never be allowed to become a commercial pilot. She would need to learn stunt flying, too, if she was ever to really make use of her new skill.
Many in the States were excited over Bessie and her accomplishments when she finally returned home to America for good in 1922. She was described as “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”! Her first flight on September 3, 1922 drew a crowd of 3,000 people!
From then on, Bessie traveled the country, putting on stunt shows (but only to desegregated crowds). She survived a plane crash. She gave speeches. She showed films of her flights. She even opened a beauty shop in Florida. She was still saving up money for her own stunt plane. She also hoped to contribute to the opening of a flight school that would admit black students.
In 1926, Bessie purchased a Curtiss Jenny biplane. It was scheduled to arrive in Florida just in time for a May Day show that she planned to present. A pilot by the name of William Wills flew the plane from Dallas to Jacksonville. His trip was marked by trouble, though, as the plane kept having mechanical difficulties.
On April 30, Bessie and Wills were still working on the plane. They took her up in the air, but a wrench that was loose got caught in the plane’s controls. Wills lost control of the plane, and it plummeted to the ground. Bessie fell out of the plane, to her death. Wills died when the plane hit the ground a few moments later.
The loss of Bessie shook many, and thousands of people flocked to her memorial services. But perhaps she would have been proudest of what came next?
Three years later, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in Los Angeles.
Jessie Carney Smith, Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (3d ed. 2012)
Karen Bush Gibson, Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys (2013)
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Women in Air and Space History (Bessie Coleman)
The National Aviation Hall of Fame (Bessie Coleman)