“NEGRESS AN AIR PILOT,” blared the headline of the special dispatch to the Washington Post. It was Bessie Coleman’s first appearance on the national stage, and already she was being defined by her race first, her gender second, and her accomplishments last.
In the brief news item, Coleman struck a characteristically confident note. “I like flying,” said the 20-year-old, “and I’m going into the business.”
But in order to become the first African American and Native American pilot in the world, Coleman had to leave the United States. She returned in the summer of 1922 with an international pilot’s license and ambitious plans, and found herself suddenly in the spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Bessie Coleman.
Born nearly a decade before the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, Coleman was the 12th of 13 children, raised by a single, sharecropping mother in Waxahachie, Texas. She walked miles to a segregated school, did domestic work with her mother, and picked cotton with her siblings. Coleman hated picking cotton and longed to leave the poverty of Waxahachie. In 1915, she got her wish when her mother let her move in with her brothers in Chicago to attend beauty school.
Spirited and smart, Coleman loved her new city. At the time, Chicago was a locus of Great Migration culture, and home to African American institutions like The Defender, a forward-thinking weekly newspaper aimed at black readers. Coleman worked in barbershops, where she listened to men gossip and soaked up news of the day, becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of flight. Some of Coleman’s clients were veterans of World War I, the first war to use airplanes. She listened eagerly to their stories and started dreaming of her place in the cockpit. But flight was almost unthinkable for a woman, much less a black woman. Though there were a handful of female show pilots, most were in Europe and were considered mere novelty acts. But as Coleman listened to her clients talk — and was teased by her brother, who claimed that only French women could fly — she made up her mind to learn.
She was immediately turned away because of her gender and her race. Frustrated, she turned to one of her customers, Robert Abbott, the millionaire and publisher of The Defender. Abbott realized that Coleman was serious and decided to sponsor her in her quest for a pilot’s license, in the hopes that her success would bring his paper — and African Americans — good publicity. Abbott told Coleman to study French so she could attend a French flying school. Then, in 1920, she headed to Europe.
The first school she applied to didn’t take female applicants, because two had died in training there. Finally, the École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron accepted her, but she had to walk nine miles to get to and from her lessons every day. She studied under a WWI ace who had downed 31 German planes.
“I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line,” she told The Defender when she came back to the United States. “We must have aviators if we are to keep pace with the times.” She returned to Europe again to get training in barnstorming: daredevil flights that took advantage of surplus WWI plane stock and earned pilots reputations for awe-inspiring — and extremely dangerous — feats.
When Coleman came back to the U.S., she was a bona fide star. Soon she was giving exhibition flights in the largest plane ever piloted by a woman. She performed terrifying stunts like plummeting toward earth before making a last-minute correction and flying figure eights that dazzled audiences. Though she eventually crashed that plane, she began touring the country in rented and borrowed planes, barnstorming her way to national admiration as “Brave Bessie.”
But her status as “the negress aviatrix” was never far from her mind. Coleman refused to perform for segregated audiences or ones at which black spectators were banned, and walked off the set of a movie when she was asked to behave in a manner she considered derogatory. She also began to make plans for the future. By opening her own flying school in the United States, she hoped to help other aspiring black pilots achieve what she had. She purchased her own plane and planned to fly it at an exhibition.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman knelt in prayer and climbed into her plane. As the 34-year-old pilot headed for the ground in one of her signature moves, the gears of the defective plane stuck and Coleman was unable to right it. She had no seatbelt and no parachute. She died instantly, along with her mechanic. When her body was found, there was a letter in her pocket from a 12-year-old African American girl telling her she wanted to be an aviator one day.