Texas Originals

Pilot ‘Brave Bessie’ Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first female African-American pilot.

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman, the first African American licensed pilot shown here on the wheel of a Curtiss JN-4 “Jennie” in her custom designed flying suit (circa 1924). Photo credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, photo NASM92-13721

 

BESSIE COLEMAN
(January 26, 1892–April 30, 1926)

 

Born to a sharecropping family in northeast Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman became the world’s first female African American aviator.

Coleman spent her childhood in Waxahachie, Texas. After moving to Chicago in her twenties, she heard thrilling stories about World War I pilots and decided she too wanted to fly.

Coleman’s race and gender barred her admission into American flight schools. Undeterred, she learned French and attended aviation school in France. In 1921, the same year Amelia Earhart began taking flying lessons, Coleman earned her international pilot’s license.

Coleman returned to America and quickly became a sensation. Her daredevil feats, in air shows, captivated crowds and earned her the nickname “Brave Bessie.”

An advocate for equal rights, Coleman encouraged young African Americans to fly. She dreamed of opening a black aviation school and refused to participate in air shows that didn’t allow blacks to attend.

In 1926, Coleman died in an accident while taking a test flight at a Florida air show. But her example remained a powerful inspiration for others. In 1929, a flying school for African Americans was founded in Coleman’s honor in Los Angeles, ensuring her legacy as a pioneer in aviation and civil rights.

Today, you find roads named for Bessie Coleman at airports in Chicago, Illinois; Oakland, California; Frankfurt, Germany; and Atlanta, Texas, the town where she was born.

 

For more about Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman’s accomplishments are featured in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. The museum’s online exhibition, “Pioneers of Flight,” features Coleman along with other African American aviators, such as William J. Powell Jr., founder of the Bessie Smith Flying School, and the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Atlanta Historical Museum in Atlanta, Texas, features photos and artifacts from Coleman’s groundbreaking career as a pilot.

 

9A01548h_Credit-National-Air-and-Space-Museum-Archives_-Smithsonian-Institution.jpg
William J. Powell (far right), a successful owner of several automobile service stations in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles to learn to fly. By the early 1930s Powell had organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club to promote aviation awareness in the black community. Both men and women were welcome to apply. Powell became a talented visionary and promoter of black involvement in aviation. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, photo 9A01548

 

Selected Bibliography

Bilstein, Roger and Jay Miller. Aviation in Texas. Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985.

Fisher, Lillian M. Brave Bessie: Flying Free. Dallas: Hendrick-Long Publishing Company, 1995.

Freydberg, Elizabeth Amelia Hadley. Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird. New York: Garland Publishers, 1994.

Hart, Philip S. and Barbara O’Connor. Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman. Minneapolis: The Learner Publishing Group, 1996.

Johnson, Dolores. She Dared to Fly: Bessie Coleman. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Inc., 1996.

Morales, Roni, “Coleman, Bessie,” Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed March 30, 2015.

Rich, Doris L. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

 

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