Who Was Bessie Coleman?

Today we are going to talk about a trailblazer in aviation. She worked tirelessly for many years to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. She holds the distinction of being the first Black woman and the first woman of Cherokee and Choctaw descent to achieve this feat. We are referring to none other than Bessie Coleman.

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. She was one of 13 siblings. Coleman’s mother worked as a maid, while her father worked as a sharecropper. In 1901, Coleman’s father left the family and moved to Oklahoma in an attempt to escape the discriminatory practices of the Jim Crow South.

During her childhood, Coleman developed a love for reading and spent a lot of time at the library. She also managed to contribute to her family’s income by working in cotton fields and doing laundry. At the age of 18, she saved enough money to attend Langston University. However, she had to drop out after one semester due to the high cost of education.

Five years later, Coleman relocated to Chicago, where she lived with her two older brothers. She enrolled in the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and started working as a manicurist. In 1917, the United States entered World War I, and both of Coleman’s brothers enlisted in the military and went to France.

Upon their return, Coleman’s brothers shared stories about their experiences in France. Bessie learned that French women had more opportunities than their American counterparts, particularly in aviation. Inspired by these stories, she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot. However, all the flying schools she applied to in the U.S. rejected her because of her race and gender. Undeterred, Coleman resolved to find a school outside of the U.S. that would teach her to fly. She also began learning French in preparation for her journey.

At the same time, Coleman developed a friendship with Robert Abbott, the owner of the “Chicago Defender” newspaper and one of the first Black millionaires in America. With Abbott’s assistance, Coleman was accepted into France’s Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation and made arrangements to move overseas.

After seven months of training, Bessie Coleman became the first Black woman in the world to obtain a pilot’s license. Additionally, she had ancestral ties to the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations through her father’s lineage, making her the first woman of American Indian descent to become a pilot.

Soon, Coleman gained recognition both in Europe and the United States. She captivated audiences with her aerial stunts, performing loops and figure eights in the sky. People flocked from all over to watch her fly, affectionately referring to her as “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess.”

However, Coleman’s contributions extended beyond entertainment. She courageously fought against segregation and other forms of discrimination. On at least one occasion, she refused to perform at a venue unless Black people were allowed to enter through the same door as white people.

Tragically, Coleman’s life was cut short on April 30, 1926. On that day, she embarked on a test flight with pilot William Wills. While Wills was flying the plane, it experienced engine trouble. He lost control, and the plane unexpectedly flipped upside-down, ejecting Coleman from the cockpit. She plummeted 3,000 feet to her death. Neither Coleman nor Wills survived the accident.

Bessie Coleman is remembered today not only for her flying skills, but also for her encouragement of other Black Americans, particularly women, to pursue aviation. The Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was established in 1977 by a group of Black female pilots. Additionally, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago honors Coleman’s memory by conducting an annual flyover of her grave.

If you aspire to become a pilot, could you one day achieve the same level of fame as Bessie Coleman? It’s possible! Thanks to trailblazers like Coleman, there are no limits to what you can achieve in the sky.

Ready for more learning? Engage in one or more of the activities below with a friend or family member:

1. Visit the Cradle of Aviation Museum website to learn more about Bessie Coleman and view pictures from her life. Share any new facts you discover and discuss what you find most intriguing about Coleman. Summarize your findings for a friend or family member.

2. Explore the stories of other pioneering women in aviation, such as Amelia Earhart or Dr. Mae Jemison. Identify similarities between these women and Bessie Coleman, as well as what sets them apart. Write a letter or email to a friend or family member detailing the female aviators you’ve learned about today.

3. If you have dreams of becoming a pilot, jot down at least five questions you have about pursuing this career. Seek assistance from a friend or family member to research these inquiries online or at your local library. Take notes on the information you discover and discuss whether you would like to pursue a career as a pilot based on your findings.

Sources of wonder:

– https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman (accessed 06 May 2021)

– https://www.biography.com/explorer/bessie-coleman (accessed 06 May 2021)

– https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/ (accessed 06 May 2021)

– https://amysmartgirls.com/20for2020-bessie-coleman-daring-aviatrix-and-first-african-american-and-native-american-woman-e7d128c70b17 (accessed 18 May 2021)

– https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed 06 May 2021)

FAQ

1. Who was Bessie Coleman?

Bessie Coleman was an American aviator who made history as the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license. She was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas. Despite facing racial and gender discrimination, Coleman pursued her dream of becoming a pilot, inspired by stories of World War I pilots. She went to France to receive her pilot’s license as flight schools in the United States denied her admission due to her race and gender. Coleman gained fame for her daredevil maneuvers and became a symbol of empowerment for African Americans and women in the early aviation industry.

2. What challenges did Bessie Coleman face in pursuing her dream?

Bessie Coleman faced numerous challenges in pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot. In the early 20th century, racial segregation and discrimination were widespread, and opportunities for African Americans, especially women, were limited. Aviation schools in the United States denied her admission because of her race and gender. Determined to achieve her goal, she traveled to France to receive her pilot’s license. Additionally, she faced financial difficulties as she relied on sponsorship and donations to fund her training and aviation pursuits. Despite these obstacles, Coleman’s determination and perseverance allowed her to break barriers and achieve her dream.

3. What impact did Bessie Coleman have on aviation history?

Bessie Coleman’s impact on aviation history is significant. As the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license, she broke barriers and paved the way for future generations of African American aviators and women in the field. Her achievements inspired many and challenged societal norms and expectations. Coleman’s legacy continues to inspire aspiring pilots, particularly those from marginalized communities, to pursue their dreams despite obstacles. She remains an important figure in the history of aviation, symbolizing courage, perseverance, and the determination to overcome adversity.

4. How is Bessie Coleman remembered today?

Bessie Coleman is remembered today as a trailblazer and an influential figure in aviation history. Her accomplishments and contributions to the field are celebrated, particularly during Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Her story is shared in schools and museums to educate and inspire future generations. Various memorials and scholarships have been established in her honor. The Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, founded in 1929, continues to promote her legacy and support aspiring aviators. Through these efforts, Coleman’s memory lives on, reminding us of the power of determination, breaking barriers, and pursuing one’s dreams.

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