Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African American descent and the first person of African-American descent to hold an international pilot license.
Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the FokkerCorporation and received additional training from one of the company’s chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess,” as she was known was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).
But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman’s dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day “amount to something.” As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. “Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks”, wrote Doris Rich.
Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators, but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream”.Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.
Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas, (where she lived as a child) is named in her honor.
A bronze plaque with Coleman’s likeness was installed on the front doors of Paxon School for Advanced Studies in 2012. The school is located on the site of the Jacksonville airfield where Coleman’s fatal flight took off.