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Bessie Coleman is the first black woman aviator licensed in the United States. (More)

Black history is American history.

Women's history is American history.

Bessie first considered becoming a pilot after reading about aviation and watching newsreels about flight. But the real impetus behind her decision to become an aviator was her brother John’s incessant teasing. John had served overseas during World War I and returned home talking about, according to historian Doris Rich, “the superiority of French women over those of Chicago’s South Side.” He even told Bessie that French women flew airplanes and declared that flying was something Bessie would never be able to do.

Soon after being turned down by American flight schools, Coleman met Robert Abbott, publisher of the well-known African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender. He recommended that Coleman save some money and move to France, which he believed was the world’s most racially progressive nation, and obtain her pilot’s license there. Coleman quickly heeded Abbott’s advice and quit her job as a manicurist to begin work as the manager of a chili parlor, a more lucrative position. She also started learning French at night. In November 1920, Bessie took her savings and sailed for France. She also received some additional funds from Abbott and one of his friends.

Coleman attended the well-known Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. There she learned to fly using French Nieuport airplanes. On June 15, 1921, Coleman obtained her pilot’s license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale after only seven months. She was the first black woman in the world to earn an aviator’s license. After some additional training in Paris, Coleman returned to the United States in September 1921.

Coleman’s main goals when she returned to America were to make a living flying and to establish the first African American flight school. Because of her color and gender, however, she was somewhat limited in her first goal. Barnstorming seemed to be the only way for her to make money, but to become an aerial daredevil, Coleman needed more training. Once again, Bessie applied to American flight schools, and once again they rejected her. So in February 1922, she returned to Europe. After learning most of the standard barnstorming tricks, Coleman returned to the United States.

Coleman’s aviation career ended tragically in 1926. On April 30, she died while preparing for a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Coleman was riding in the passenger seat of her “Jenny” airplane while her mechanic William Wills was piloting the aircraft. Bessie was not wearing her seat belt at the time so that she could lean over the edge of the cockpit and scout potential parachute landing spots (she had recently added parachute-jumping to her repertoire and was planning to perform the feat the next day). But while Bessie was scouting from the back seat, the plane suddenly dropped into a steep nosedive and then flipped over and catapulted her to her death. Wills, who was still strapped into his seat, struggled to regain control of the aircraft, but died when he crashed in a nearby field. After the accident, investigators discovered that Wills, who was Coleman’s mechanic, had lost control of the aircraft because a loose wrench had jammed the plane’s instruments.

Coleman’s impact on aviation history, and particularly African Americans, quickly became apparent following her death. Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs suddenly sprang up throughout the country. On Labor Day, 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show, which attracted approximately 15,000 spectators. That same year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of Coleman’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. Coleman’s name also began appearing on buildings in Harlem.

Bessie Coleman

Her connection to Cleveland is as follows: this year the International Women’s Air and Space Museum @ Burke Lakefront Airport is celebrating her life as part of this month of March being Women’s History Month.

Bessie Coleman stamp


A mighty fist bump to you all!.

International woman's  air and space museum

Updated by JanF at Wed Mar 2, 2011, 06:53:50 PM

Note: This diary is not associated with BPI Campus

Originally posted to BPICampus on Wed Mar 02, 2011 at 10:07 AM PST.

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