Episode 35: Bessie Coleman
March 30, 2023
Bessie Coleman, the first African American and Native American woman to earn her international pilot’s license. Her story is one of determination and the tenacity to say, “yes, I can do it!”
From an early age Bessie Coleman’s mother taught her the importance of believing in herself and striving to “become somebody.” Her mother could not read, however she borrow books from a traveling library, and helped Bessie learn to read. It was a great success, because not only did Bessie learn to read, she became an avid reader and taught her siblings too. Her love of reading and ability to learn languages helped her achieve her greatest success: learning French and attending pilot training in France. Bessie Coleman, became the first African -American and Native American woman to receive her international pilot’s license in France on June 15, 1921.
Bessie once said, “I guess it was the newspapers reporting on air war in Europe during World War I, that got me interested in flying. I was an avid reader, and searched the libraries looking for information on flying. I think all the articles I read finally convinced me I should be up there flying, and not just reading about it, so I started searching for a flying school. At first I thought it would be easy, just walk in and sign up. I didn’t realize that I had two strikes against me. I remember hearing of a few women pilots before the war but I had never seen one. The other strike against me was my color. No one had ever heard of a black woman pilot in 1919. I refused to take no for an answer. My mother’s words always gave me strength to overcome obstacles.”
Bessie’s story is one filled with determination and the example of believing in yourself and taking action – that makes all the difference in the world.
On this podcast I share her story, along with Dorothy Cochrane with the National Air and Space Museum, Sarah Fisher with the International Women Air & Space museum and, Gigi Coleman the great niece of Bessie Coleman. We come together to share her story and inspire others to reach for the sky and achieve their dreams.
I am Annita Thomas, host of Quarter Miles Travel, a podcast all about the U.S. Mint Quarters programs, where you’ll find not only an adventure on the back of a quarter, but history, iconic Americans, wildlife and so many ways to learn more about the United States.
A few facts about Bessie Coleman.
- Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892.
- She was one of 13 children of Susan Coleman, a Black maid, and George Coleman, a sharecropper of mixed Native American and Black descent.
- Bessie grew up helping her mother wash laundry and pick cotton to earn money. By the time she was 18, Bessie had saved enough money to attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma.
- She learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago
- She worked as a manicurist to earn money and save for her dream of becoming a pilot.
- She received additional financial support from Robert Abbott founder and editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender, along with funds from another African American entrepreneurs, so she could set off for Paris from New York on November 20, 1920.
- Coleman was accepted at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France.
- Coleman took Abbott’s advice and went to night school, and in a few months had learned enough French and saved enough money to travel to Europe.
- She trained in France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland and studied with the famous WWI German ace pilot, Captain Keller.
- She test piloted airplanes in the Netherland forAnthony Fokker , the “Flying Dutchman”
- On September 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island, she performed the first public flight in the U.S. by a Black woman.
- Throughout her life she was encouraged by Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender.
For more information about Bessie Coleman and to visit places where you’ll learn more about her, click the websites for the following museums.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
They are preparing for an upcoming Black Wings exhibit which will be part of the Pioneers of Flight gallery opening in 2024, all about African Americans learning to fly in the 1930’s.
International Women Air and Space Museum
Located in the Cleveland Ohio airport, the museum preserves, educates and inspires their community to learn more about women’s achievement in all areas of aviation.
Bessie Colemand Aviation All Stars
Gigi Coleman great niece of Bessie Coleman has formed the Bessie Coleman Aviation Allstars to help youth interested in aviation learn more and find avenues to reach their dreams. Bessiecolemanaviationallstars.org
To learn more about the U.S. Mint Quarter Programs visit their website – USMint.gov
Bessie Coleman earned her license on June 15, 1921. Her dream came true and she continues to inspire us today, over 100 years later.
On April 30, 1926, with almost enough money saved to open her school. She had a fatal air accident. Bessie was performing in a May Day exhibition in Orlando, Florida, for the Negro Welfare League. At 7:30 p.m. Bessie, accompanied by her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, took her plane up for a test flight. Wills had taken the plane up on a test flight a week earlier and had landed twice because of engine trouble. Mechanical problems with the aircraft caused it to sputter and dive. Bessie, not wearing any protective gear, fell from the airplane.
After her death Willa Brown, who had been inspired by Bessie, opened the first flying school for blacks and that school was responsible for the primary training of the men of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, one of the most highly decorated all-black fighter squadrons in World War II.
She returned to the United States with her air-pilot license from the Federation Aeronautique International as the first international licensed black pilot in the world. Having reached her first goal, she set a new one.
“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly. I needed money for this so I began giving flying exhibitions and lecturing on aviation. The color of my skin, at first a drawback, now drew large crowds wherever I went. At first I was a curiosity, but soon the public discovered I could really fly. Then they came to see “Brave Bessie,” as they called me.”
Photo usage courtesy of the Coleman family
You can find the recently released Bessie Coleman doll online or at your local department stores.
Check your pockets or your sofa cushions for the Bessie Coleman quarter. The first one released in 2023 by U.S. Mint as part of their Women Quarters Program.
Click here for the first episode of 2022 featuring Maya Angelou.