Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Fearless Fly Girl
A daredevil of her generation, Bessie Coleman
soared above barriers of her time to dazzle audiences and become
a fearless aviator of the skies. One of 13 children, Coleman was
born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. When she was only two years old,
her family moved to the farm town of Waxahacie, Texas where she
grew up picking cotton and helping her mother do laundry for customers.
Racial discrimination in the south, drove Bessie’s
father, who was Native American from Texas back to his home in
Oklahoma, where Native Americans enjoyed full civil rights. Her
father hoped to build a better life for his family there, but
Bessie’s mother remained in Texas with her children.
Coleman went to work as a laundress, hoping to
make enough money to attend college. Even though local schools
closed during the cotton picking season forcing children to work
during the harvest, Coleman was determined to get an education.
She borrowed books from a traveling library and learned enough
to graduate from high school. In 1910, she attended Colored Agricultural
and Normal University (now known as Langston University), but
was forced to drop out after one semester because she ran out
Frustrated that she had to return to her job
as a laundress, Coleman moved to Chicago in 1915 to join her two
brothers. Vowing to never work again as a maid or laundress, Bessie
attended beauty school and worked as a men’s manicurist
at the White Sox Barber Shop. Coleman became known as the best
and fastest manicurist in Chicago, but had higher aspirations.
Her brother John, who fought in World War I,
teased Bessie that French women were superior to Chicago women
because they could fly planes. John told his sister she would
never be able to fly a plane like the French girls. Coleman set
out to prove her brother wrong. She applied to flight schools
throughout the country, but was rejected because she was Black
and a woman.
Undaunted in her pursuit to become an aviator,
Coleman heeded the advice of her friend Robert Abbott, publisher
of the Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, who urged her to
move to France where racism was not as prevalent to earn her pilot’s
license. She began taking French lessons and took a higher paying
job as a chili restaurant manager to save money for her move.
In 1920, Coleman sailed for France with her savings
and donations from Abbott and other wealthy sponsors. She learned
to fly using a French Nieuport plane. After only seven months
of taking flying lessons at the Caudron Brother’s School
of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, Bessie became the first Black
woman to obtain a license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
Upon returning to the states in 1921, Bessie
quickly realized she needed to learn how to barnstorm and become
an aerial daredevil if she ever wanted to make a living as a pilot.
So, in 1922 she returned to Europe, learning barnstorming techniques
in France and Germany.
Transforming herself into a celebrity of the
skies, Bessie flew her first air show on September 3, 1922 at
Glenn Curtiss Field in Garden City, New York. Sponsored by the
Chicago Defender, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s
greatest woman flyer.” She immediately became a star, thrilling
audiences with dips and dives such as barrel rolls and loop the
loops and unknowingly inspired other Black women to fly.
While preparing for a show in Los Angeles in
1923, Coleman had her first accident. The plane stalled, crashed
and knocked Coleman unconscious. She suffered a broken leg and
cracked ribs. After taking a year to recover, Bessie regained
her fearless spirit and threw her flying into high-gear, touring
the country giving exhibitions, flight lessons and lectures. On
June 19, 1925, she returned to her home state of Texas to fly
over Houston's Aerial Transport Field to celebrate the anniversary
of the day Blacks in Texas had achieved emancipation from slavery
Following the Houston show, Bessie returned to
Waxahachie to fly in an event. Just like other cities in the segregated
south, Whites and Blacks attending the event were required to
sit in separate areas. At this event, officials even demanded
attendees enter the airfield using separate White and Black only
entrances. Throughout her life, Coleman tried to use her celebrity
to break racial barriers. Coleman refused to perform unless all
attendees entered through one gate. After labored negotiations,
Coleman prevailed—guests entered through one gate and the
show went on.
Sadly, while preparing for a show in Jacksonville,
Florida in 1926, her career came to a tragic end. Flying with
her mechanic William Wills, Bessie wasn’t wearing her seatbelt
so she could lean over out of her seat to scout potential parachute
landing spots for the show. Suddenly, the plane nosedived, throwing
Coleman from the plane to her death and killing Wills upon impact.
Investigators discovered a loose wrench had jammed the plane’s
instruments causing Wills to lose control of the plane.
While Coleman never realized her dream of establishing
her own flying school, she had a tremendous impact on aviation
history and inspired many Black Americans. After her death Bessie
Coleman Aero Clubs cropped up throughout the country. In 1977,
the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was founded by Black women pilots
for women of all races.
Bessie’s accomplishments in the skies most
likely inspired the Tuskegee Airmen to take flight. In 1941, the
US Army Air Force began a program to train Black men as military
pilots. Nearly 1000 men completed flight training and many went
on to fight in World War II. Between May, 1943 and June 9, 1945,
the Tuskegee Airmen compiled an enviable record-- none of the
bombers they escorted was lost to enemy fighters, they destroyed
251 enemy aircraft and won more than 850 medals.
Recognizing the courage and contribution Coleman
made to American history, in 1990 Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
renamed Old Mannheim Road at O’Hare Airport Bessie Coleman
Drive. In 1995, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in honor
of her life. Ever focused on achieving her goals, Bessie never
let the barriers of segregation and racism defeat her ambition
of becoming a successful pilot.
In honor of Bessie’s great achievement,
HIA Toys is proud to offer our Fearless
Fly Girl action figure.