Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892. The family soon moved to a farm near Dallas. Her father, George Coleman, moved to Indian Territory, Oklahoma, in 1901, where he had rights, based on having three Indian grandparents. His wife, Susan, with five of their children still at home, refused to go with him. She supported the children by picking cotton and taking in laundry and ironing.
Susan, Bessie Coleman’s mother, encouraged her daughter’s education, though she was herself illiterate, and though Bessie had to miss school often to help in the cotton fields or to watch her younger siblings. After Bessie graduated from eighth grade with high marks, she was able to pay, with her own savings and some from her mother, for a semester’s tuition at an industrial college in Oklahoma.
When she dropped out of school after a semester, she returned home, working as a laundress. In 1915 she moved to Chicago to stay with her two brothers who had already moved there. She went to beauty school, and became a manicurist, where she met many of the “black elite” of Chicago.
Bessie Coleman had read about the new field of aviation, and her interest was heightened when her brothers regaled her with tales of French women flying planes in World War I. She tried to enroll in aviation school, but was turned down. It was the same story with other schools where she applied.
One of her contacts through her job as a manicurist was Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender. He encouraged her to go to France to study flying there. She got a new position managing a chili restaurant while studying French at the Berlitz school. She followed Abbott’s advice, and, with funds from several sponsors including Abbott, left for France in 1920.
In France, Bessie Coleman was accepted in a flying school, and received her pilot’s license — the first African American woman to do so. After two more months of study with a French pilot, she returned to New York in September, 1921. There, she was celebrated in the black press and was ignored by the mainstream press.
Wanting to make her living as a pilot, Bessie Coleman returned to Europe for advanced training in acrobatic flying — stunt flying. She found that training in France, in the Netherlands, and in Germany. She returned to the United States in 1922.
That Labor Day weekend, Bessie Coleman flew in an air show on Long Island in New York, with Abbott and the Chicago Defender as sponsors. The event was held in honor of black veterans of World War I. She was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flyer.”
Weeks later, she flew in a second show, this one in Chicago, where crowds lauded her stunt flying. From there she became a popular pilot at air shows around the United States.
She announced her intent to start a flying school for African Americans, and began recruiting students for that future venture. She started a beauty shop in Florida to help raise funds. She also regularly lectured at schools and churches.
Bessie Coleman landed a movie role, but walked away when she realized that the depiction of her as a black woman would be as a stereotypical “Uncle Tom.” Those of her backers who were in the entertainment industry in turn walked away from supporting her career.
In 1923, Bessie Coleman bought her own plane, a World War I surplus Army training plane. She crashed in the plane days later, on February 4, when the plane nose-dived. After a long recuperation from broken bones, and a longer struggle to find new backers, she finally was able to get some new bookings for her stunt flying.
On Juneteenth(June 19) in 1924 , she flew in a Texas air show. She bought another plane — this one also an older model, one that was low-priced enough that she could afford it.
In April, 1926, Bessie Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida, to prepare for a May Day Celebration sponsored by the local Negro Welfare League. On April 30, she and her mechanic went for a test flight, with the mechanic piloting the plane and Bessie in the other seat, with her seat belt unbuckled so that she could lean out and get a better view of the ground as she planned the next day’s stunts.
A loose wrench got wedged in the open gear box, and the controls jammed. Bessie Coleman was thrown from the plane at 1,000 feet, and she died in the fall to the ground. The mechanic could not regain control, and the plane crashed and burned, killing the mechanic.
After a well-attended memorial service in Jacksonville on May 2, Bessie Coleman was buried in Chicago. Another memorial service there drew crowds as well.
Every April 30, African American aviators — men and women — fly in formation over Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Chicago (Blue Island) and drop flowers on Bessie Coleman’s grave.
Black flyers founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, right after her death. the Bessie Aviators organization was founded by black women pilots in 1975, open to women pilots of all races.
In 1990, Chicago renamed a road near O’Hare International Airport for Bessie Coleman. That same year, Lambert – St. Louis International Airport unveiled a mural honoring “Black Americans in Flight,” including Bessie Coleman. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service honored Bessie Coleman with a commemorative stamp.
In October, 2002, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.