The life story of Bessie Coleman is extraordinary. She was the first female pilot of African American descent and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence. The tenth of thirteen children born to sharecroppers in Atlanta [Texas] Bessie Smith moved to Chicago in 1915, at the age of 23, where she worked as a manicurist in a Barber shop. There she heard stories from ex-World War I flying aces which fired her enthusiasm to become a pilot. However she was refused entry to American flight schools because of her sex and her colour. Black US aviators also refused to train her.
But Bessie Coleman had grit, she raised money, learned french and, in 1920, moved to Paris where she was accepted by France’s most famous flight school – Ecole Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy. She earned her international aviation licence from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1921 – the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so.
She sailed back to the USA in September the same year where her attempts to buy a plane and find employment were again thwarted by prejudice. However, as before, Coleman refused to give up and she moved to Europe once more to pursue her dream. She gained advance, on the job, aviation training in France, Germany, , Holland and Switzerland from 1922-24, perfecting life-saving manoeuvres whilst learning the loop-the -loop, figure eights, trick climbs and even how to land her plane without power.
Bessie Coleman returned to America in 1924 and this time, with European press cuttings showing that she had been entertained by royalty, her credentials could not be denied. Her ambition was to open a flying school for black Americans and she went to work to make the money to do so. Bessie Coleman staged her first show on Labor Day 1922 at Long Island New York where she thrilled a large audience with a display of spirals and loops. The show was dedicated to the first African American Infantry Regiment sent to France in World War I.
Several successful airshows followed before a crash in February 1923, in front of a crowd of 10,000, put her in hospital for three months and without a plane or job. She returned to Chicago where she was famous and feted. However, Bessie Coleman could not stay out of the air for long and headed back to Texas to embark on a barnstorming career as a stunt pilot. This in itself was courageous given the racial climate of the time. The move south saw her estrangement from her leading financial backer who feared that the move to the deep south was literally suicidal.
However Bessie Smith dazzled crowds not only with her aerial derring do but with her inspiring talks to packed movie houses and churches. All the time she fought for civil rights, black education and to tear down racial barriers.
Bessie Coleman died, in April 1926, falling from the cockpit of a new plane she was testing in Jacksonville, Florida. Her body was taken by train to Chicago where it was met by thousands of mourners wanting to pay their respect to a flying legend. Her remains were placed in a U.S. flag draped coffin and given a military escort from six uniformed pall bearers, veterans of the African American 8th Infantry regiment. Her dream of a flying school for African Americans became a reality in 1929.