The Flight Deck

The Enduring Legacy of Bessie Coleman

aviation history Feb 26, 2024

Born into a sharecropping family in Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans and women had no flight training opportunities in the U.S. at that time. In order to attend flight school, Bessie saved and obtained scholarships so that she could travel to France to receive the training she so desired. She also had to learn French in order to complete the application.

On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first black woman and first self-identified Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Upon returning to the U.S., she became a media sensation. In order make a living as a civilian aviator, Bessie became a stunt flier, performing dangerous tricks in the air with the then-still-novel technology of airplanes for paying audiences. She completed additional training in both France and Germany to hone her skills.

Known as “Queen Bess,” Bessie was admired by both blacks and whites and was a highly popular draw. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplanes and other surplus aircraft left over from the first World War. She quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at northing to complete a difficult stunt.

Throughout her short life, Bessie was determined to promote aviation and combat racism. She spoke to audiences across the country about the pursuit of aviation and goals for African Americans and absolutely refused to participate in aviation events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans.

Although Bessie died in a plane crash on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida, her legacy lives on. Her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women, including William J. Powell, John Robinson, Cornelius Coffey, Willa Brown, Janet Harmon Bragg and Mae Jemison. In addition, a public library in Chicago was named in her honor, as well as roads at O’Hare International airport in Chicago, Oakland International Airport in California, Tampa International Airport in Florida and at Germany’s Frankfurt International Airport. Most recently, Bessie Coleman was honored on an American Women quarter in 2023.

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