Bessie Coleman was the worldıs first black female pilot and the first woman to receive an international pilotıs license. She was born on January 26, 1893 to sharecropper parents as the twelfth of thirteen children. From an early age, her mother urged Bessie to ³become somebody.² Although her mother couldnıt read, she borrowed books from a traveling library, hoping that somehow her daughter could teach herself how to read. ³
I guess it was the newspapers reporting on the air war in Europe during World War I that got me interested in flying...I think all the articles I read finally convinced me I should be up there flying, and not just reading about it, so I started searching for a flying school....I didnıt realize that I had two strikes against me. I remember hearing of a few women pilots before the war but I had never seen one. The other strike against me was my color. No one had ever heard of a black woman pilot in 1919,² recalls Bessie.
When Bessie set out to find an aviation school, she found that every door was firmly closed to her, but she refused to be discouraged. Her determination led her to Robert S. Abbott, founder and editor of the Chicago Weekly Defender. Abbott, an aviation enthusiast himself, was excited about the prospect of a black woman becoming a pilot. As Bessie could not gain admittance to an American flying school because of her race, she followed Abbottıs advice and took French lessons at night school and enrolled in a French school of aviation. Despite financial difficulties, Bessie earned her license on June 15, 1921. She had made her dreams come true.
In September of that same year, Bessie returned to America with her license from the prestigious Federation Aeronautique Internationale and the recognition of being the only licensed black woman pilot. Bessie wanted to open a flying school to teach other black women to fly, and began dangerous flying exhibitions and cross-country lecturing to raise funds. With almost enough funds to support her dream, ³Brave Bessie² accepted an invitation to perform in a May Day exhibition for the Negro Welfare League. On April 30, 1926, Bessie accompanied her mechanic, William D. Wills, on a short test run. Barely ten minutes into the flight and at an altitude of 5,000 feet, the plane went into a nose dive. Instead of pulling out of the dive, the aircraft suddenly flipped over, and Bessie, who had neither fastened her seat belt nor worn a parachute, was thrown from the plane and plunged 2,000 feet to her death. Wills, trapped in the plane, died upon impact. Minutes after the crash a bystander lit a cigarette and unthinkingly tossed the match to the ground, igniting the spilled gasoline and sending the wreckage into flames. No one knows why the safety-conscious Bessie did not wear her seat belt, but a later investigation found the cause of the tragedy to be a wrench that had dropped between the control levers. Some have suggested that this catastrophe was more than just an accident: After all, Bessie Coleman was an articulate black woman with a dream for her people, and therefore possibly seen as a threat sixty years ago.
It is said that each year, on the anniversary of Bessie Colemanıs death, black pilots fly over her grave and drop flowers in her honor. On the tenth anniversary of her death, the Chicago Weekly Defender wrote, ³Though with the crashing of the plane life ceased for Bessie Coleman, she inspired enough members of her race by her courage to carry on in aviation and what they accomplish will stand as a memorial for Miss Coleman.²
Bessie Coleman. Online Source. Available http://www.netsrq.com/~dbois/coleman.html, July 1998. Bessie Coleman - The First African American Pilot. Online Source. Available http://www.infinet.com/~iwasm/bessie.html, July 1998. Holden, Henry. Ladybirds: The Untold Story of Women Pilots in America. New Jersey: Black Hawk Publishing Company, 1991. Woman of Excellence October 1997. Online Source. Available http://www.women-in- aviation.com/excel/coleman.html, July 1998.