Bessie Coleman

View item information

Bessie Coleman after a flight in Berlin, Germany, 1925. Courtesy of the Schomburg General Research and Reference Division via The New York Public Library.

Bessie "Queen Bess" Coleman grew up in Texas where her family faced financial hardship and racial discrimination. She later moved to Chicago where she became a manicurist. But after her brother John returned from World War I and teased her with stories of French women pilots, Coleman decided that she too would learn to fly.

Coleman was rejected from every US flight school she applied to because she was a woman and African American. With her savings and the support of generous African American businessmen (including millionaire Robert Abbott, the owner of The Chicago Defender, a weekly paper for African American readers), Coleman journeyed to France for flight school. She obtained her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in June 1921, becoming the first African American woman to do so.

She returned to the US in 1922 and performed in air shows, entertaining crowds of thousands while refusing to participate in shows with segregated admission. She also gave flight lessons and lectures, encouraging other African American women to fly.

Coleman’s story ended tragically in 1926. While scouting locations for parachute jumps, her mechanic lost control and crashed. Bessie Coleman was thrown from the plane to her death.

Her legacy as a daring and barrier-breaking aviatrix remains. After her death, air clubs for African Americans sprang up, named in her honor. The first African American woman in space, Mae Jemison, carried a picture of Bessie Coleman with her on her own historic flight.