The air is the only place free from prejudice. —Bessie Coleman
On January 26, 1892, in the small town of Atlanta, Texas, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born into a world that was not her own. The tenth child of Susan and George Coleman, she entered a life of hard work and poverty. Frustrated with Atlanta’s lack of opportunity, her father moved the family to Waxahachie when Coleman was two. But in 1901, challenged still by the oppression and poverty that seemed to define life for a black man in the South, her father left to return to his Cherokee roots in Oklahoma.
Coleman’s mother soon found work as a cook and housekeeper. As her older brothers left home as well, seeking their own opportunities outside the racial restrictions they had grown up with, the young girl found herself running the household and her younger sisters while her mother worked. As she cooked and cleaned, helped picked cotton during the harvest, and tended to her studies, she dreamed of another life. A life full of dreams, a life that was her own.
Escaping the same troubles that had driven her father away, Coleman enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Oklahoma in 1910. Unable to continue paying her tuition, she was forced to return to what she knew as home in Texas the following year. She found work, but she continued to hope for more. In 1915, twenty-three-year-old Coleman took that hope and moved North. Moving in with two of her brothers in Chicago, she got a job as a manicurist and supported herself as her brothers went to fight in World War I. It was after their safe return that her dream began to take shape.
Being a woman that had supported herself for a handful of years now, she didn’t take lightly her brothers’ comments of the superiority of French women. Not only did French women have careers, they told her, but they could fly. Knowing her true worth as a strong, black woman, Coleman decided that if French women could fly, she could too. And she would fly above any barriers that stood in her way.
She quickly learned that although she had removed herself from the Jim Crow South, Chicago wasn’t any friendlier to the dreams of a young black woman. As she sought instructors to teach her to fly, prejudice greeted her around every corner. Women didn’t fly; surely a black woman never would. More determined with every “no” she heard, Coleman turned to role model Robert Abbott, publisher and editor of the Chicago Defender. At his urging and with his financial help, Coleman left for France in 1920.
Seven months into a ten-month course, on June 15, 1921, Coleman received her pilot’s license. Bessie Coleman, the young, black woman with humble roots from a small Texas town, was the first black woman in the aviation school’s history to receive her license. And of the sixty-two other students becoming pilots, she was the sole woman.
Her return to the States came with a hero’s welcome on September 16, 1921. Although she had left Chicago in obscurity, her accomplishment had garnered media attention, much in part due to her connections with Abbott. She spent the next few years flying in air shows, billed as “the world’s greatest woman flyer.” They had told her she couldn’t, but there she was, soaring above the prejudices that had blocked her. Now she refused segregated shows. If her race wouldn’t be welcomed in an audience, she wouldn’t fly in the show either. She had checked off one goal just to start another. This time, she dreamed of opening an aviation school where no one would tell a young, black girl she couldn’t fly.
But some dreams just have to wait. On April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman and her mechanic, William Wills, took her newly arrived plane for a test drive. With Wills at the control, a wrench got caught in the gears, causing the plane to dive downward. Coleman, who hadn’t been secured with her seatbelt, fell from the plane to her death. The woman that had defied racial gravity was gone at age thirty-four.
Around 10,000 people came to pay their respects at the funeral of the first black American female pilot—a woman who had been born into a world that wasn’t her own but wasn’t afraid of the work it took to make her dreams into reality. Some of those dreams had to wait longer than others, but the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in 1929 by William J. Powell. No longer would little black girls be told they would never fly.
If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets. —Bessie Coleman
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