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WCW: Bessie Coleman

A true pioneer of her time, Bessie Coleman was the first female African American pilot and the first African American to hold an international pilot license.

Bessie Coleman Bessie Coleman

Coleman was born in Atlanta, TX in 1892 to a large family. Growing up in poverty, she worked hard to make a living and accomplished all 8 grade of schooling, excelling in math. At 23, she moved to Chicago to live with two of her older brothers. There, she heard tales of flights from pilots who were returning from WWI. Motivated by these stories, her brother’s taunting her and the lack of belief that African American women could fly she set out to find a school that would teach her. After repeated rejects from flight schools in the United States, Coleman began to look else where to achieve her dream.

In 1920, she set off to Paris to learn to fly at a school that would teach her. After seven months of training in a 27-foot unreliable biplane, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded Coleman her international pilot’s license in June of 1921. She trained further in France, specializing in stunt flying and parachuting.

Bessie Coleman standing near a plane. Bessie Coleman standing near a plane.

Returning to the United States, she spent the next five years performing at countless air shows. Defending her and others’ rights and equality, she took a stand against locations that wouldn’t admit members of her race and would refuse to perform there. Coleman used her fame to encourage other African Americans to fly by speaking at schools and churches. She also raised money to found a school for African American aviators, wanting to spread the right of flight to other women and men of her race.

Bessie Coleman standing on her plane in 1922. Bessie Coleman standing on her plane in 1922.

Tragically, Coleman and her mechanic, William Wills, took their last flight on April 30, 1926. Preparing for an air show the following day, the plane unexpectedly plummeted, and this brave aviator fell to her death.

Her spirit and accomplishments have not been forgotten. As a revolutionary figure in history, Bessie Coleman has continued to inspire women and men alike to follow their passions and take flight no matter what may stand in their way.

“I refused to take no for an answer.” – Bessie Coleman