Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s licence. She achieved this two years before her better-known contemporary, Amelia Earhart, and 10 years before the world-famous Wright Brothers attempted their first-ever flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Bessie would thrill crowds by performing loop-the-loops and tailspins in a flimsy aeroplane and representing, literally, the heights that African-Americans could attain. Yet, despite her achievements against all odds, she’s rarely mentioned. Even her death on 30 April 1926 went unreported in many newspapers at the time.
Bessie Coleman was born on 26 January 1862 to a black mother and mixed-race father. She lived in poverty with 12 sisters and brothers whom she laboured with, in the cotton fields of Texas. Unlike most African-Americans of the era, however, she completed high school and went on to university, but dropped out unable to afford the fees.
She ended up working as a manicurist but was never content, deciding early on she loved the idea of and the adventure of flying. Seeing pictures in newspapers of airforce pilots fired her imagination. Her determination to learn to fly was galvanised by her brother who would tease her about her job. He had served in the Army in France during World War I and told her stories of how women there had far more opportunities, were more liberated, and were even taught to fly planes.
Despite applying to every American flying school, each one turned her down because of her race and her gender. No one in America would train a young black woman to fly. She did eventually catch a break with an elite flying school in France. To prepare, she set about learning French and working to save up for her trip. During her training, she learned to master stunts such as tailspins, which ended up useful, eventually earning her pilot’s license in 1921.
When she returned to the USA, however, guess what? She could not get a job as a commercial pilot due to racial and sexual prejudice. So she ended up taking a job as… a stunt pilot. In fact, she became one of America’s greatest stuntwomen, and the first female African American wing walker. In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. She was famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” in an aeroplane. People were fascinated by her performances and she became more popular both in the United States and in Europe. She toured the country giving flight lessons, and performing in-flight shows, and she encouraged African Americans and women to learn how to fly.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices,” she said, “I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew [African Americans] needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
She always used her work as a way to advocate for black rights, only working at air shows that didn’t refuse black people entry. Apparently, her motto was ‘No Uncle Tom stuff for me’. She also overturned social conventions – smoking cigarettes, heading out without a chaperone – and had ‘plans to establish a flying school and teach the Negro to fly so they will able to serve their country better’, but she died before her dream could be realised. She was killed, aged just 34, during a test flight (her mechanic was piloting), when the plane went into a spin and she fell out of the open cockpit.
Various acknowledgements of her achievements have been made. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago started a tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year. By 1977, African American women pilots formed the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the “Bessie Coleman Stamp” was made to remember all of her accomplishments. Only in 2019 did the New York Times publish her obituary.