Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was a woman with sky-high dreams–literally. In 1922, she became the first African American to obtain an international pilot license.
Coleman’s life was far from a dream in the clouds. Born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the tenth of thirteen children to her sharecropper parents George and Susan Coleman. At six, she started school in Waxahachie, Texas where she walked four miles to her small, segregated one-room school every day. But that didn’t deter him from learning. She stood out as one of the best math students and finished all eight grades at the school.
In 1901, Coleman’s family life took a dismal turn when her father, frustrated with the racial constraints in Texas, left to find better opportunities in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, where he found more rights due to his Indian heritage. Coleman’s mother refused to go with him and stayed in Texas, supporting her children through income from cotton picking and laundry services.
Coleman continued her schooling at Missionary Baptist Church and after graduating, enrolled at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. She was only able to finish one term before she ran out of funds. In 1915 She moved to Chicago and lived with her brothers. While working as a manicurist in Chicago, she was inspired by stories of French women pilots during World War I. Her applications to flight schools in the U.S. were turned down, but with the encouragement of a Robert S. Abbott, her friend and the publisher of the Chicago Defender, she secured founders and was able to study in France. There she was accepted in a flying school where she received her license in seven months from Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.
Upon her return to the U.S., Coleman became a celebrated star in the black community, although mostly ignored by mainstream media. She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and was able to earn a living by performing aerial tricks. Coleman intended to start a flying school for African Americans, and began recruiting students towards that goal. She later landed a part in a movie, but turned it down when she realized her character would portray the stereotypical “Uncle Tom.” After she turned down the role, she found her supporters in the entertainment industry also turned away from her.
In 1926, Coleman and her mechanic went on a test flight in preparation for the May Day Celebration in Jacksonville, FL. As the two flew around, a loose wrench jammed the controls and Coleman was thrown out of the plane and died. She was 33 years old.
Although Coleman lived a short life, her accomplishments offer a lifetime of inspiration for many. Every April 30, black aviators fly in formation over her grave in the Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Chicago to drop flowers on her grave. In addition, the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs was founded in 1975 and is open to women pilots of all colors. Coleman is a reminder to live your dreams, no matter how big or small. Always be true to who you are, stand for what you believe in and don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. While life may be short, pressing past all barriers to find success in what you feel compelled to do ensures a life well lived.
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