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Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman US Postage StampBessie Coleman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bessie "Queen Bess" Coleman (January 26, 1892 - April 30, 1926), was the first African American woman to become an airplane pilot, and the first American woman to hold an international pilot's licence. She was also the first black licensed pilot in the world. Ms. Coleman was married briefly to Charles Wilson Pankey.

Birth & Early Life

Born in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the twelfth of thirteen children. Her father, George Coleman, was three-quarter Choctaw Indian. Her parents were sharecroppers yet her early childhood was a happy one, spent playing in the front yard or on the porch. Sunday mornings and afternoons were spent at church.

As the other children began to age and find work in the fields, Bessie assumed responsibilities around the house. She looked after her sisters, helped her mother, Susan Coleman, work in her garden, and performed many of the everyday chores of running the house.

Bessie began school at the age of six and had to walk 4 miles each day to her all-black, one-room school. Despite sometimes lacking such materials as chalk and pencils Bessie was an excellent student. She loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. Bessie completed all eight grades of her one-room school.

Every year Bessie's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. Each man, woman, and child was needed to pick the cotton, so the Coleman family worked together in the fields during the harvest.

In 1901, Bessie's life took a dramatic turn. George Coleman left his family. He had become fed up with the racial barriers that existed in Texas. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was then called, to find better opportunities, but Susan and the children did not go with him.

At the age of twelve Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. When she turned eighteen Bessie took all of her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Bessie completed only one term before she ran out of money and was forced to return home. In 1915, at the age of twenty-three, she went to live with her brothers in Chicago while she looked for work.


Coleman knew there was no future for her in her home town, so she moved to Chicago where she joined two of her brothers when she was 23. She worked at a supermarket there with her brothers. She also worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she heard tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. They told stories about flying in the war and Coleman started to fantasize about being a pilot. Her brother used to tease her by commenting that French women were better than African-American women because French women were pilots already. At the barbershop, Coleman met many influential men from the black community, including Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, and Jesse Binga, a real estate promoter. Coleman received financial backing from Binga, and from the Chicago Defender, who capitalized on her flamboyant personality and her beauty to promote his newspaper, and to promote her cause.


Coleman took French language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then travelled to Paris on November 20, 1920. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. Coleman was the only non-white student at her French flight school, and she learned while using a plane that had failed many times. Once, she saw a fellow student die during practice. However, she learned quickly: in seven months, she was granted a pilot license.


In September of 1921, she became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. In 1922, she participated at her first airshow, in Long Island. Coleman continued to perform in airshows, and survived several crashes. In Los Angeles, California, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1922. As her notoriety grew, she was invited to make a film about her life. Ultimately, she walked off the set because she felt the script stereotyped blacks. Her ultimate aim was to improve the lot of African Americans by opening a flight school they would be able to attend, as American flight schools were closed to them.


On April 30, 1926, Coleman was preparing for an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida, with her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, at the controls. Coleman had recently purchased a plane in Dallas and it had just been flown to Jacksonville. Her friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. For the flight, Coleman did not put on her seatbelt, because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit to examine the terrain. About 12 minutes into the flight the plane did not pull out of a planned nosedive; instead it accelerated into a tailspin. Bessie Coleman was thrown from the plane at 500 hundred feet and died instantly when she hit the ground. William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Despite the badly burned plane, an investigation revealed that the crash was possibly due to a wrench that was lodged in the control gears. Bessie Coleman is buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.

Funeral and legacy

Her funeral was attended by 10,000 mourners. Many of them, including Ida B. Wells, were prominent members of Black society. As the first African American woman pilot, she has been honored in several ways since her death: in 1931, a group of Black male pilots performed the first yearly fly-by over Coleman's grave, in 1977, a group of African American women pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club and in 1995, she was honored with her image on a postage stamp by the United States Postal Service.

External links

PBS, The American Experience: Bessie Coleman
Picture of stamp and other information
Find-A-Grave profile for Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman web page ==

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