Bessie Coleman Image Credit Left to Right (National Women’s History, Cradle of Aviation Museum)

With a dream to open a flying school of her own to carve a legacy for many African American women and Air Force Pilots, Bessie Coleman made history and continues to remain an enigma. In 1931, the Challenger Pilot’s Association of Chicago initiated a tradition for pilots to fly over Bessie Coleman’s grave every year to pay her tribute. 

Journey To Her First Flight

Born to a mother who worked primarily as a maid and a father who was a sharecropper both came from African American descent. Later on, her father moved to work while Bessie and her mother lived in Texas with her 12 other brothers and sisters. She dropped out of college and her brothers joined the military during World War 1 and were posted in France. The journey of Bessie Coleman becoming the first African American pilot to earn a license began here. She would listen to her brother’s stories about France and how women were allowed to fly planes there while in the United States, they faced subsequent segregation and discrimination. This ignited a spark within Bessie and made her travel to France to enroll in a flying school. To avail admission she had to write an application in French and even learn to converse so she started taking French classes at night. Bessie studied in the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, and later went on to receive her International license in 1921. It was Coleman’s dream to open a flying school and own a plane of her own. 

Coleman’s First Flying Accident 

For Coleman to fly in the United States she had to fund her flying career and make a legacy in a state which still practiced segregation and discrimination based on race. For her, this was a challenge that she overcame by giving speeches and showing her films in churches, theatres, and schools of flying planes and flying tricks which included doing “loop-the-loops” and making ‘8’ with an airplane. This move of Bessie Coleman made her an icon in the United States and Europe but it also earned her a lot of money. Bessie nearly two years later was injured severely in her first flying accident which caused her multiple broken ribs, a broken leg, and a few cuts on her face. Not only did she fully recover but she also purchased her first plane, ‘Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine,’ checking off her dream list. 

Bessie Coleman was famous for her air tricks and stunts that gave her titles like, ‘Queen Bess’, ‘Brave Bessie’ and ‘The Only Race Aviatrix In The World.’ These were not only her personal wins but also for an entire community.  Not only did it encourage many African American women it also put them in a different light during the years of segregation. Bessie Coleman’s flying career lifted women and flyers all over the world. 

In 1926, Coleman took a test flight with William Wills who was a mechanic. It was during this flight test that Coleman lost her life. Wills flew the plane and they were 3,000 feet up when a wrench got stuck in the engine which made him lose control of the plane. Back then the plane models did not have a safety evacuation system so Coleman couldn’t escape and subsequently suffered a fatal death. Even though her death was tragic, her life was technicolor and a celebratory event that continues to inspire many. 

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Senior Editor, Digital Manager, Blogger, has been nominated for awards several times as Publisher and Author over the years. Has been with company for almost three years and is a current native St. Louisan.

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