Bessie Coleman: The Right to Fly

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APEX Insight: In the 1920s, Bessie Coleman overcame racial and gender stereotypes, becoming the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot’s license.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman became the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot’s license. But her race and gender didn’t make it easy for her.

Born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman finished high school, then became a laundress and saved up to attend Langston University in Oklahoma, but ran out of money after only a semester.

“I refused to take no for an answer.” – Bessie Coleman

Spurred by stories of World War I, Coleman set her mind on becoming a pilot. By then she was living in Chicago and working as a manicurist, where she met Robert Abbott, founding editor of the nation’s largest African-American weekly, The Chicago Defender.

In post-war America, there were no black pilots, and no white pilots were willing to teach her to fly. Abbott convinced Coleman to go to France, where her race and gender would be less of a barrier.

On June 15, 1921, after seven months of training, Coleman received her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. After that, she traveled around Europe, pursuing stunt flying, eventually becoming a “full-fledged aviatrix” at air shows.

Coleman moved to New York City in August 1922, with the goal of bringing more blacks into aviation. She spoke to the African-American community at churches, schools and theaters with the intention of collecting enough funds to start a flight school.

In 1923, Coleman survived a plane crash that hospitalized her for three months – but that didn’t stop her from flying. Three years later, however, on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida, she died after being hurled from a malfunctioning airplane, a day before an air show in which she was scheduled to perform.

“It is important for this country to know that an ordinary African-American woman contributed to the history of this country,” says Doreen Branch, an African-American pilot and board member of the Bessie Coleman Aerospace Legacy. “Folks know about the Tuskegee Airmen, but they also need to hear about someone who just wanted to exercise her right to fly.”