The Incredible True Story Of Bessie Coleman, America’s First Black Female Pilot

Elizabeth Bessie Coleman

At a time when racism in the United States was the order of the day, African-Americans were subjected to racism and segregation, which prevents them from obtaining the education that their white counterparts receives. For women, especially women like Bessie who was an African-American, it was difficult to become what she wanted. Bessie at that time got educated in a segregated school. In the United States at that time, African women had no chance to learn in-demand skills. They were mostly given peasant jobs to do and made housemaids.

Bessie Coleman always had the passion to fly planes but she had no one that would train her. Based on her gender and colour, she was denied admission to all the aviation schools she applied to in the United States. Young Bessie didn’t let that dream of hers died. To achieve her dream she saved money, learned French all by herself, and travelled to Crotoy, France, where she enrolled in an aviation school — became the first African American woman to obtain a civil aviator’s international pilot’s license — became the first African-American woman to fly in public — and the first female pilot of African ancestry.

Coleman learned to fly on the Nieuport 82 biplane, a tenuous vehicle with a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.

Bessie Coleman demonstrated advanced flying skills in just seven months, including flips, jumping from the cockpit, and walking out onto the plane’s wings.

Coleman became the first African American woman to receive an international pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in June 1921. Coleman moved to New York in September of the same year, when she quickly gained media attention.

At a performance in New York, Bessie Coleman was recognized as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race,” and the whole audience, including the several hundred white individuals in the orchestra seats, stood to praise her achievement.

Coleman could only support himself as a pilot by entertaining crowds as a stunt flyer because the commercial aviation era was still ten years away. She required extra training to be able to achieve that. She studied stunt flying for a year in France, Germany, and the Netherlands before coming back to the United States as a featured performer.

The aviatrix put on amazing performances when she engaged in risky acrobatics thousands of feet in the air. Coleman made sure that the thousands of people who attended her performances were of all races. In fact, it’s been said that she only gave performances for audiences that could enter via the same door.

She had a reputation as a confident and stylish woman and socialized with people like the African Prince Kojo from the Kingdom of Dahomey, the stunning singer Josephine Baker (who obtained her own pilot’s license in 1933), and the actor William “Bojangles” Robinson.

Bessie Coleman’s life was almost going to be the topic of a Hollywood movie, but she turned it down when she found out that the filmmaker intended to portray her early years as being poor. She allegedly told Billboard magazine, “No Uncle Tom nonsense for me!”

But the stardom wasn’t without incident. In 1923, Coleman nose-dived from 300 feet to the earth during a performance in front of 10,000 spectators. She survived the incident with little damage, but her dare-devilish tricks had to be hung up for a time. Her return to the skies three years later would be her last.


On January 26, 1892, Elizabeth Bessie Coleman, the tenth of twelve children, was born in a remote area of Texas. Bessie Coleman was the first woman of Native American origin to fly in America since her father was Black and her mother was Black and Cherokee.

Coleman’s parents were sharecroppers who were illiterate, yet she commuted four miles each way daily to a one-room segregated school where she excelled in math and learned to read.

Coleman went to college at Oklahoma’s Langston Industrial College, which is now Langston University, unlike many other women of any race at the time. She had to leave school since she could only afford one semester. Then, in 1916, she relocated to Chicago with her brother.

Bessie Coleman started working as a manicurist and had a reputation for being one of the swiftest in her area of the city. When World War I fighter pilots started garnering media attention, she was employed at the White Sox Barber Shop.


Bessie Coleman organized an aviation display in Florida for May 1926 after spending years travelling as a speaker and lecturer and flying less regularly.

Coleman and a young pilot named William Wills went for a practice flight in Jacksonville the day before the concert. She was not secured in the craft while in flight and she searched for secure locations to land during the event.

The engine then failed to function after 10 minutes of flying. Coleman was evacuated from the aircraft while it was in mid-dive and died after plummeting 2,000 feet. As soon as she hit the ground, she died.

Coleman’s death made national news, but her co-pilot Wills allegedly garnered greater attention due to his colour. However, about 5,000 people showed up to her tribute in Jacksonville. Thousands more people came out to mourn her and celebrate her tremendous legacy as her body travelled to Orlando and Chicago. Ida B. Wells, an intersectional civil rights pioneer, delivered a well-known eulogy in Chicago during her burial.

With the words “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire countless thousands, maybe millions of young children with her spirit of adventure, her optimistic attitude, and her resolve to achieve,” the Chicago City Council asked for a postage stamp in her honour in 1992. In 1995, the Bessie Coleman stamp was made public. She was admitted to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583