(b. January 26, Atlanta, Texas – d. April 30, 1926, Jacksonville, Florida)
Bessie Coleman is an emblem of persistence and success in the face of adversity; as the first Black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license, she is a paramount figure in the history of minority issues. Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 to a household maid and tenant farmer with Native American blood. In pursuit of non-discriminatory employment opportunities, Coleman’s father left the family when Coleman was very young.
At the age of eighteen, she earned enough money from picking cotton and working as a maid to pursue an academic career at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Within her first year of college, however, Coleman was no longer able to afford her education, dropping out early and returning home. A few years later, at the age of 23, Coleman moved to Chicago with her brothers, working as a manicurist to earn money. At the time, her brothers often brought home stories of fighter pilots, vividly describing their experiences fighting in World War I. Inspired by their tales, Coleman decided to pursue an education in aviation—applying to multiple American pilot schools. Because of her identity as a Black woman, she was denied entry by every single aviation school she applied to. Nevertheless, Coleman persevered, taking night classes to learn the French language and applying to non-discriminatory aviation schools in France. She earned her international pilot’s license in less than 7 months, and swiftly made a career out of performing aerial tricks, such as her world-famous “loop-the-loops”, garnering multiple nicknames including “Brave Bessie” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World”. Coleman went on to provide flight lessons and encourage Black women to pursue careers in aviation. She gave speeches and showed films of her aerial tricks at schools, churches, and theaters—refusing to present at any location that continued to segregate or discriminate against Black people. Despite a major plane crash accident in 1923 that left her severely wounded, Coleman continued to vehemently pursue her passion. By 1925, she was once again in the sky performing aerial tricks, eventually earning enough money to buy her own plane. Afterward, Coleman was set to perform in Texas, a heavily segregated state at the time. She refused to commence her performance until the show’s coordinators agreed to create a single entrance for both White and Black people. By consistently speaking out against social injustices and using her platform to inspire Black communities, she has played a key role in minority causes. Furthermore, Coleman’s drive and determination in pursuing her passion are a powerful testament to her inspirational words: “I made up my mind to try. I tried and was successful,” “I refused to take no for an answer”.