Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
“I made my mind up to try. I tried and was successful.” -Bessie Coleman
This is one of many quotes from Bessie Coleman, yet we at IDareU2Bee.com think that it is the one that best sums up the essence of Bessie Coleman’s spirit. It is such an important message and one that we often forget when faced with an obstacle: You cannot be successful if you do not try! As we continue to celebrate African Americans who faced seemingly insurmountable odds to follow their dreams, achieve their goals and open doors for others, we are excited to highlight Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, the first African-American female aviator.
Bessie Coleman was born in Texas on January 26, 1892, to parents who were sharecroppers. Segregation was the norm in the South at that time, there were regular white on black violence and few opportunities for people of colour. As a child, Bessie worked in the fields picking cotton with her mother. She attended school in a one-room wooden shack that had very few supplies. Regardless she completed her education and went on to study at what is now known as Langston University in Oklahoma. However, she ran out of funds and needed to drop out after one semester. She decided to move north to Chicago and live with one of her brothers. She went to beauty school and started working as a manicurist in a barbershop. It was here that she started to hear of the exploits of pilots who had returned from World War I and decided that she wanted to learn how to fly. Unfortunately, all the aviation schools in the US refused her entry because she was both an African American and a woman. She did not let this crush her dream. One of her older brothers was a veteran and would tease her about the fact that the women in France were allowed to learn how to fly. She decided with the encouragement of friends and wealthy benefactors that she would go to France to learn how to fly.
Imagine having that goal at that time. She didn’t speak French, didn’t know the country, would have to raise the funds for travel as well as tuition and living expenses. To many that would seem like an impossible dream. Not to Bessie, however, who had that word TRY in her spirit. She enrolled at a Berlitz language school to learn French, applied to the French aviation schools, and was accepted. In November of 1920, with the financial help of a couple of wealthy African American businessmen, she travelled to Paris. She was the only person of colour in her aviation class nevertheless 7 months later she graduated and received her international pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She returned to the United States with the dream of opening her own aviation school for African Americans.
Back in the US, she travelled the country speaking and sharing her love of flying at churches and she took part in air shows to help raise funds to open her school. She would wow the crowds with her stunt flying, becoming known for doing “loop-the-loops” and figure eights. Keep in mind that in the 1920s the planes were open-there were no roofs on the cockpits, so doing loops was a very dangerous trick! People started calling her “Brave Bessie.” When she was asked to do talks and stunt shows in the south she refused to attend if the event was segregated, as a result, she started to affect some changes where both black and white spectators entered the grounds or stadiums through one single integrated entrance.
Unfortunately, before she was able to fulfill her goal to open her flight school, she was tragically killed during a test flight before an airshow in 1926. She was in the passenger seat next to her mechanic who was flying at the time the pilot lost control of the plane resulting in the plane flipping over and causing Bessie to be ejected from her seat at 2000 feet in the air. Nevertheless, Bessie left a legacy of inspiring future African American aviators, both men and women all because she was able to Let Go of Fear, Doubt, Anger, Frustration and Let her LOVE of flying WIN!