Bessie Coleman

1892 – 1926

The First Black Female Pilot

Bessie’s father was of mixed heritage, part African and part Native American, he left his family to return to Oklahoma Indian Territory. As a result, Bessie’s life as a child was hard. To make ends meet she picked cotton and helped her mother do laundry.

Seeing as there were no opportunities to make a better life for herself if she remained in the South, on graduation, Bessie left Texas to join her brother in Chicago. There she trained as a manicurist and got a job at a barber shop. 

Bessie wanted more out of life; she became interested in airplanes and decided she would learn to fly. Because she was a Black woman, when Bessie tried to enrol at the local school of aviation she was turned away. Bessie was advised that the only way she would succeed in her ambition, was to apply to a flying school in Europe where she would not face such prejudices.

After making two trips to Europe, and studying with French and German aviators, in 1921, Bessie became the first Black woman in the world to receive an international pilot’s license, she was the first African American to get their pilot’s license and one of the first aviation pioneers in America.

As an exhibitions flyer, Bessie performed her first show at the Checkerboard Field in Chicago in 1922; for the next four years she continued to perform in air shows across America.

After seeing her many young black Americans also wanted to fly and contacted Bessie for help. Bessie’s dream was to open her own school, however, she died in an airplane crash during a test flight before that dream could be realised.

Read The Legacy of Bessie Coleman by Loise Oertly

*Amelia Earhart was the first woman (white) to fly solo across the Atlantic; Bessie Coleman received her pilot’s license two years before Amelia Earhart.