Passport to Adventure – our series highlighting bold women who defied expectations throughout history – is back! This month we’re highlighting Bessie Coleman, a remarkable civil aviator.
Bessie Coleman (born 1892) was an African American & Cherokee aviator who starred in early aviation exhibits and stunt air shows, earning her the nicknames Brave Bessie & Queen Bess.
While working as a manicurist in her early 20s, Bessie was inspired by stories from WWI pilots and took a second job as a restaurant manager in hopes of saving for flight school. Unfortunately, her initial attempts to enter aviation schools were halted because neither African Americans nor women were allowed formal flight training in the United States.
Illustration by Ashley Hay.
This didn’t stop her determination to soar high. After learning of the many women aviators in France, Bessie began saving money from her jobs. Prominent Black business members of the time encouraged her to follow her dream abroad; Robert Abbott published Bessie’s story is his paper the Chicago Defender to drum up interest, and entrepreneur/banker Jesse Binga helped to fund her travel.
Coleman studied French in her free time and was later accepted at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France in 1920. She worked hard and realized her dream of earning an international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Although the United States had denied her the right to earn a license domestically, she was celebrated upon returning home as the first African American and Native American woman pilot. She had returned to the United States where she staged the first public flight by an African American woman on Labor Day 1922. From there her popularity soared with aerial “barnstorming” stunt shows, where Bessie stood strong by her beliefs and refused to perform for segregated audiences.
Always setting her sights higher, Bessie’s new dream was to own her own plane and open a flight school to encourage more African Americans to take to the skies. She began fundraising through speeches, flight lessons, and air show participation where she stunned audiences with daring moves like “loop-the-loops”. She purchased her own plane in 1925, Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine.
Turbulent events couldn’t limit Coleman’s aspirations, including witnessing a classmate perish in a crash and an accident of her own that left her badly injured. Coleman never let anything deter her from pursuing her dreams, so she continued her daring performances once fully healed.
Over time she raised enough money to open her own school, but before it was realized tragedy struck. Bessie passed away in 1926 while a passenger in a test flight at the age of 34. Though she died young, her legacy lives on to this day. For many years, Black pilots from Chicago honored her annually by flying over her grave. Bessie Coleman continues to serve as an inspiration for anyone to awaken their sense of adventure, persevere, and never give up.
You can read more about Bessie Coleman at the National Women’s History Museum, and see some stunning shots of Bessie in action via the Smithsonian video below!