Bessie Coleman, known as "Queen Bess" (January 26, 1892 -
April 30, 1926) was the first African American woman to become an airplane
pilot. She was also the first black licensed pilot in the world. Ms.
Coleman was married briefly to Charles Wilson Pankey.
Bessie ColemanBorn in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the twelfth of thirteen
children. Her father was three-quarter Choctaw Indian. The family
earned their living by picking cotton. Everyone worked, including
the children. The elementary school that she attended very often
lacked such materials as chalk and pencils. Nevertheless, Coleman
graduated from eighth grade and briefly attended college at Colored
Agricultural and Normal University, Oklahoma (now Langton University)
until her funds ran out.
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 meet 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, with her
mechanic, William Wills, at the controls. The plane was an old, unsafe,
cobbled-together wreck. Her friends and family did not consider the
aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. Coleman did not put on
her seatbelt, because she was planning a parachute jump and wanted
to examine the terrain. The plane crashed, possibly because of a wrench
that got stuck in the control gears. Coleman was killed instantly.
Wills also died. Neither was using a parachute.
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.