Bessie Coleman: The First Black Female Pilot*
Bessie Coleman was an American civil aviator, the first female pilot of African American descent, and the first person of African American descent to have an international pilot license. She was born in 1892 in Texas, the tenth of thirteen children, and in school showed herself to be a lover of reading and mathematics. She enrolled in what is now Langston College in Oklahoma, but was forced to return home due to lack of funds. At 23, she moved to Chicago, where she heard stories from returning World War I pilots about flying during the war. Due to her race and gender, however, despite her interest in aviation, no American flight school or aviator would train her.
Determined to become an aviator, Bessie went to France in 1920 and, a year later, earned her aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, becoming the first American of any gender to receive a license from that organization. She trained as a “barnstorming” stunt flier in order to make a living. Known as “Queen Bess,” she was well-known for her daredevil maneuvers, though her flamboyant style was often criticized by the press. Though offered a role in a film, when she learned that her first scene would show her in tattered clothes with a walking stick and pack, she walked off set rather than perpetuate the derogatory image of African Americans. In 1926, in preparation for an air show, her plane failed to pull out of a dive and began to spin, causing Bessie to be thrown from the plane, 2,000 feet above the ground, killing her instantly. She was 34 years old.