It’s hard to imagine a more challenging start to life than being born poor, black and female in 1892 Texas. Despite these challenges, Bessie Coleman soared to amazing heights during her short life to become the first African-American woman and the first Native-American to hold a pilot’s license and the first black person to earn an international pilot’s license.
One of 13 children born into a family of sharecroppers, Bessie excelled in school despite the four-mile walk each day to reach the segregated one-room class, and the work in the cotton fields to earn money after her father left the family. Nevertheless, at the age of 12 Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. Upon graduation at the age of 18, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma (now called Langston University) but left after one semester because she could not afford it.
In 1915 at the age of 23, Bessie moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. The wartime stories she heard from pilots during World War 1, sparked her interest in becoming a pilot herself. She took a second job to earn money to get her pilot’s license, but was denied entry into flight schools across the United States because neither women nor blacks were allowed. Undeterred, Bessie learned French so she could apply to flight school in France. She was accepted into the renowned Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, where she received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Bessie’s dream was to open her own flight school for African-Americans but in the meantime she earned money with exhibition flying. She was dubbed “Queen Bess,” and became famous for her daredevil maneuvers. Committed to promoting aviation and combating racism, Bessie refused to participate in events that were segregated or discriminated against African-Americans.
On April 30, 1926, at just 34 years old, Bessie Coleman was tragically killed when she fell from the passenger seat of an out of control plane. Understandably, her death was heartbreaking for the African-American community and all those that admired her daring stunts and courageous convictions. Inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006, Bessie serves as inspiration to African-Americans, Native-Americans, women, minorities and anyone facing challenges, as a shining example of all that is possible.