Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the 10th of 13 children. When Coleman was two years old her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23. Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student.
When she turned 18, Coleman took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma.** She completed one term before her money ran out, and returned home. In 1915, at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist, where she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I.
She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was Black and female. No Black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from a banker named Jesse Binga and the Chicago Defender. Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, and the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so, but the first African-American woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license. Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921 sailed for New York.
She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would need to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. In February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next few months in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
She returned to the United States and became known as “Queen Bess”. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport). She quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.
On April 30, 1926 Coleman was in Jacksonville to prepare for an air show. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. Coleman did not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About 10 minutes into the flight the plane unexpectedly dived, then spun around. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 feet and died instantly when she hit the ground. Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.
A public library in Chicago is named in Coleman’s honor, as is a road at O’Hare International Airport and at Frankfurt International Airport. Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas, (where she lived as a child) is named in her honor. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent stamp honoring Coleman.