During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.
Bessie Coleman, Pioneer Aviatrix
Born: January 26, 1982 Atlanta, Tx.
Best known for: Being the first Black female pilot in the United States
Bessie Coleman, also known as “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie,” was the first Black female pilot in the United States, and one of the first in Europe. She was also the first woman of Native American descent to have a pilot’s license.
She came from very humble beginnings, being born in a one-room shack in a small town in Texas as one of thirteen children. She loved school but often couldn’t attend class in order to help her parents working in the cotton fields as sharecroppers.
Coleman tried to attend college at Langston University but couldn’t afford it and had to drop out after just one semester. She went to live with her older brother in Chicago and quickly developed an intense interest in flying, although becoming a pilot would have seemed completely out of reach to a Black woman at that time.
Sexism and racism kept Coleman from pursuing her dream of being a pilot in the United States, but a Black journalist named Robert Abbott, the publisher of The Chicago Defender, paid for her to study flying in France in 1920 for a little over six months. She eventually earned her pilot’s license and even studied in France a second time to learn how to be a stunt flyer.
Coleman studied at the famous Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She was the first Black person to get an international pilot’s license.
She quickly rose to fame in America and made a decent living for five years, though she was also hurt several times in flying accidents. Coleman eventually died while flying on April 30, 1926. She and her co-pilot, William D. Wills, took the plane into the air over Florida in order to scope out the landscape even though it had mechanical issues the day before.
The plane crashed and both died instantly.
Even though she died far too soon and never opened up a flight school for Black people, as was her dream, her pioneering career in aviation inspired countless other African Americans and Native Americans for generations.