December 16, 2022
I just read to my 8-year old twin daughters about an exceptional person I never heard of before: Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot, and the first Native American pilot.
Bessie was born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas. Her family was part Cherokee. She walked four miles every day to a segregated one-room schoolhouse, where she established herself as a gifted student, especially in math.
At the age of 23, Bessie moved to Chicago where she worked as a manicurist. Hearing stories of returning aviator from WWI, she wanted to learn how to fly, but no pilot school would accept her.
So Bessie took a French course at Berlitz, and traveled to Paris where attended flying school and earned a pilot license – the first Black woman ever to do so.
Before the birth of the airlines, the only way to make a living as a pilot after the war was “barnstorming” – thrilling and dangerous aerobatic exhibitions. To get more advanced training, Bessie traveled to the Netherlands and Germany to meet aircraft designer Anthony Fokker.
When she returned to the US, she became a famous stunt pilot, performing as “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”. She had one condition: she would only perform at shows that were open to African-American spectators.
Coleman spoke widely about equal opportunities for African-Americans, including in aviation, and she hoped to establish a flight school for African-Americans in the US.
Tragically, like so many early aviators, her dream was cut short by a dangerous profession. In 1926, a plane she was flying went unexpectedly into a dive, throwing her out of the cockpit. She fell from the sky and was killed instantly on impact. She was 34 years old.
In 1992, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, flying in the Space Shuttle Endeavor, became the first African American woman in space. She carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on the mission.
“If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.” – Bessie Coleman
This little girl is amazing. I bet Bessie would be very proud.