Female Badasses in History: Elizabeth „Bessie“ Coleman (1891-1926)
Bessie Coleman was one of the first female African-American civil aviators as well as the first African-American female to hold an international pilot license. She came from a poor family and worked her way up to fulfilling her dream of becoming a pilot. She is also credited with tearing down barriers for African-Americans in regards to the young flight industry and inspiring a whole generation of young women.
Bessie was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to a family that was part Cherokee. Her early education took place in an all-black, one-room school several miles away from her home. Despite the poor conditions, Bessie excelled as a student and at age eighteen she took all of her savings to enroll in a university in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately she ran out of money before she could even finish one term.
In 1915 she and her family moved to Chicago where Bessie started working as a manicurist in a barber shop. It is said, that this was the place where she heard stories of flying told by pilots that visited the shop. Being inspired by these stories, Bessie tried to gain admission to flight schools but she always was rejected because she was a woman and black. At the time African-American aviators existed but they also refused to train her.
Having heard that in France women could become pilots, Bessie took out a loan, took French classes and in 1920 packed her things and moved to France. In Paris she gained admission to a flying school and in 1921 became the first African-American woman to hold an international pilot license. She returned to the US in the same year and became an immediate media sensation.
In order to make a living, Bessie reckoned she would have to become a stuntpilot. After some more training in Europe (in the US she had been refused again), she started performing in 1922 as a stuntflier, which at the time was the true beginning of civil aviator ship since there was hardly any commercial traveling by plane.
She soon became known as a daring stunt flyer by the name of “Queen Bess” never backing down from a daring stunt. Her reputation even lead to her being offered a movie role, which at first she accepted but when she learned that the first scene of her in the movie would be in tattered clothes with a walking stick, she walked off the set because she disagreed on principle with this kind of presentation of African-Americans in movies.
Bessie Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African-Americans but unfortunately she didn’t live to see this dream come true. In 1826 at age 34 she purchased a new plane and when she took it on its maiden flight together with her mechanic, the plane spun out of control and Bessie was thrown out of the plane and died upon impact on the ground.
Her funeral was attended by thousands of people and her impact on the history of flight in the US became apparent immediately following her death. All over the country Bessie-Coleman flight clubs were founded in order to make it possible for African-Americans to learn how to fly. Not only has she been honored by the City of Chicago, by the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as by the US government, which issued a stamp of her in 1995, her most important post-mortem accomplishment was to inspire African-Americans, especially women. William Powell, who served as a pilot in a segregated unit in WWI, wrote in 1934 that Bessie Coleman helped not only to overcome racial barriers but also the “barriers within ourselves”. Mae Jemison, the first female black astronaut, wrote a book about Bessie Coleman in which she emphasized the following: “”I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.“