On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American to receive an international pilot’s license.
Born to Native American/African American parents, Bessie was one of thirteen children in a family who derived their livelihood from sharecropping in Atlanta, Texas. She attended all eight years of school in the same one-room school house where she learned a love of reading and excelled in mathematics.
And as any academically-gifted student would, she went on to attend college at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, she was compelled to drop out after only one year due to lack of funds.
But never one to “throw in the towel,” the irrepressible young woman continued to pursue her big dreams in the windy city of Chicago. Interestingly, in 1915, she moved in with her brother and gained employment as a manicurist in a barbershop. There, she found herself witness to countless exhilarating stories of flying which proved to be both inspiring and prophetic. An aviation legend was about to be born…
In November of 1919, after taking a class to learn the French language, she departed for France with the goal of being the first African American to obtain an international pilot’s license. And she did just that!
When she returned to the US in September of 1921, she returned as a record-holder and was surprised at the interest the press had in her remarkable accomplishment.
She spent the years that followed as an exhibition pilot, performing daring and technically-challenging air stunts. And adhering to her principles and desire to change the face of aviation, she insisted that all of her shows be desegregated and all spectators be allowed to enter through the same gates.
Bessie Coleman succeeded in advancing both women and African Americans in the world of flight. But sadly, her life was cut dramatically short as she was thrown from the cockpit of her plane during a test flight on April 30, 1926.
Perhaps the most tragic irony that occurred on that fateful day rested in the fact that she had finally paid off the beloved aircraft which led to her untimely demise.