Celebrating the Birthday of Bessie Coleman: First African-Native American Woman Pilot

Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. The tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George Coleman, a mixed  Black andCherokee or Chocktaw and Susan, a Black woman. At the time of her birth and growing up, Blacks lived in a cruel world of abject poverty, racial discrimination, and lynchings.   Blacks were not allowed to vote, since they could not read or write, and hence pass literacy tests. They couldn't ride in railway cars with white people, or use a wide range of public facilities or ride in railway cars reserved for whites.

Bessie Coleman was determined to succeed.  Bessie Coleman first went to school at the age of six, attending a one-room wooden shack, a four-mile walk  away from her home. The shack classroom often lacked paper to write on or pencils to write with. 

In 1916, at the age of 23,  Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois to live with two of her older brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. White Sox Barber Shop was visited by pilots returning home from World War I who recounted their stories of bravery  while flying  bombers during the war. She took a second job at a chili parlor to procure money faster to become a pilot. Even then she faced unsurmountable hurdles. American flight schools admitted neither Blacks nor women, less Black-Native American women. Robert S. Abbott, an entrepreneur, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, and one of the first Black millionaires, encouraged her to study abroad, in France. Coleman received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga,  another African American entrepreneur, and the Defender. 

Coleman learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago, withdrew her savings she had accumulated as a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor, and with the additional financial support of Abbott and Jesse Binga , she set off for Paris from New York on November 20, 1920. 

When Coleman returned to the U.S. in September 1921, she was received by a scores of news reporters.  Several journals commented the event:  "Air Service News" noted that Coleman had become "a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race."  She was invited as a guest of honor to attend the all-black musical "Shuffle Along." The entire audience, including the several hundred whites in the orchestra seats, rose to give the first African American female pilot a standing ovation.

Over the next five years Coleman performed at countless air shows. The first took place on September 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island, New York. Robert S. Abbott's "Chicago Defender" publicized the event saying that the:  "wonderful little woman" Bessie Coleman would do "heart thrilling stunts." According to a reporter from Kansas, as many as 3,000 people, including local dignitaries, attended the event. 

 Coleman took her tragic last flight on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida. Together with a young Texan mechanic called William Wills, Coleman was preparing for an air show that was to have taken place the following day. At 3,500 feet with Wills at the controls, an unsecured wrench somehow got caught in the control gears and the plane unexpectedly plummeted toward earth. Coleman, who wasn't wearing a seat-belt, fell to her death. 

About 10,000 mourners paid their last respects to the first African American woman aviator, filing past her coffin in Chicago South's Side. Her funeral was attended by several prominent African Americans and it was presided over by Ida B. Wells, .  

During her life as a celebrity, Coleman  encouraged other Blacks  to fly and advocated civil rights along with other prominent civil rights activists, especially Ida B. Wells, an outspoken advocate of equal rights.  She refused to perform at locations or events that wouldn't admit Blacks and other minorities.

Although not recognized during her lifetime, her legacy has endured.  The editorial in the "Dallas Express" remarked that "There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such."

Since 1931, Black pilots from Chicago instituted an annual fly over of her grave. In 1977 a group of Black women pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. And in 1992 a Chicago City council resolution requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. In 1995, The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Coleman in 1995. The Bessie Coleman Commemorative is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series. In 2006, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.