At an early age, Bessie Coleman was a conqueror of adversity. Born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, the daughter of sharecroppers and tenth of thirteen children, her family eventually moved to Oklahoma for better opportunities.
As a child, Bessie was an an avid learner and walked four miles every morning to a one room segregated school. When she was nine years old, her father left but despite his absence, she continued her education even when she had to leave school early to attend to the crops.
At 23, Bessie moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. Hearing stories of pilots returning from war, she became fascinated with aviation and wanted to become a pilot. She applied to several aviation schools in the U.S. but none would take her because she was a black woman. With the encouragement of her family and Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper, Bessie applied to an aviation school abroad where she was accepted.
After working all day as a beautician, Bessie spent her evenings in a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago. By November 1920 she had raised enough money to attend aviation school in France and in June 1921, became the first African-American female to earn her pilot's license.
When Bessie returned to the States she found she'd become a star. The news media made a big deal of her accomplishment because of her race. At that time she realized if she wanted to have a successful career as a pilot she needed to do more and so she became a “barnstormer”--a stunt pilot. She trained for two months in Paris; her first air show was in 1922 with a crowd of over 3,000 people in attendance and her daredevil stunts gained her the nicknames “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bessie.”
On April 30, 1926, during a flight check and rehearsal for a show, the normally safety-cautious Bessie, who was not wearing her seat belt, died after she was thrown out of her plane during a mishap at 3,500 feet. The plane crashed killing her mechanic. Bessie Coleman was mourned by thousands and her funeral was attended by some of America's most prominent members of the African-American community.
Though she died ninety years ago, Bessie Coleman's legacy endures. In 1931 an annual flyover of her grave was instituted by black pilots in Chicago. The Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was established in 1977 and in 1992 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor. Bessie Coleman paved the way for female aviators by challenging racism and sexism and redefining the status quo. Her accomplishments and contributions to aviation never be forgotten.