In these times in which women march for their freedoms, fear for their rights, and fight against a tyrannical regime, it’s good to remember those that came before. So many women have made great strides toward equality and have inspired not just women, but all who have faced oppression, to chase their goals and dreams. Once such woman was Bessie Coleman, whose 125th birthday is today.
If you don’t know who Bessie Coleman was, you are missing out. She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. The daughter of impoverished sharecroppers, she was one of 13 children. She grew up during a time when lynching was commonplace, blacks were barred from voting, and segregation was a way of life.
Her first school was a one room shack that often couldn’t even afford paper or pencils. At 12 years old, Coleman attended the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas. After graduating, she spent one year at a college in Oklahoma, then eventually ended up in Chicago living with her brothers and working as a manicurist.
Wild stories of flying exploits from returning World War I pilots captivated Coleman and inspired her to become an aviator. Taunting from her brother about how French women were better than black women because they could fly spurred her on even more. She saved her money and applied for flight school. However, every school she submitted to turned her down. She had two strikes against her – her race and her gender. There were very few female pilots at the time, and those were primarily white and wealthy.
Under the advice and with backing of Robert Abbott a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and one of the first African American millionaires, Coleman learned French and moved to France to attend the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. She had her international pilot’s license within seven months.
One of Coleman’s goals upon returning to the US was to start a flight school for African Americans. Instead, she became a daring stunt pilot, specializing in aerial tricks and parachuting. She became a popular performer to crowds of thousands, with many reporters and dignitaries in attendance. While she didn’t open a flight school, she used her celebrity status to encourage other African Americans to fly and also refused to perform at locales that denied admission to members of her race.
On April 30th, 1926, at the age of 34, Bessie Coleman took her last flight. While flying with another pilot in preparation for an airshow, a wrench became lodged in the control gears causing the plane to plummet toward the ground. Coleman was thrown from the plane and fell to her death.
Coleman’s funeral was attended by approximately 10,000 including many prominent African Americans. Suffragist, feminist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells presided over the service.
The plight of Bessie Coleman is still relevant. Female and African American pilots are still rare, not only in the United States, but worldwide. 90% of pilots are white and just above 5% are female.
An inspiration still to this day, Coleman defied gender and racial barriers, becoming a symbol of equal rights for all. Coleman is proof, that as an African American and a woman, dreams are attainable.
“Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” ~ American engineer, soldier, civil aviator and author William J. Powell