Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she taught herself French and moved to France, earning her license from France’s well-known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in just seven months. Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, earning a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. She remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.
Born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children to Susan and George Coleman, who both worked as share croppers.
At 12 years old, Coleman began attending the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas and, after graduating, embarked on a journey to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), where she completed only one term due to financial constraints.
In 1915, at 23 years old, Coleman moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. Not long after her move to Chicago, she began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation.
In 1922, a time of both gender and racial discrimination, Coleman broke barriers and became the world’s first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she took it upon herself to learn French and move to France to achieve her goal. After only seven months, Coleman earned her license from France’s well known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.
Though she wanted to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. In 1922, hers was the first public flight by an African- American woman in America.
Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show. She was only 33 years old.
Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.