Growing up one of 13 children in a Texas family in the early 1900s, Bessie Coleman learned early about both race and gender discrimination. Not able to attend school regularly, Bessie educated herself through books she borrowed from a traveling library.
In 1915, she moved to Chicago with two of her brothers, earning money as a manicurist. When her brother, John, returned from World War I, boasting that French women were superior to the women of Chicago, with some even flying airplanes, Bessie immediately set out to prove she could fly. But because she was both black and female, no American flight school would take her.
Robert Abbott, publisher of an African-American newspaper in Chicago, learned of her frustration and suggested she save her money and move to France. Bessie was soon on her way to France. On June 15, 1921, after only seven months’ instruction, she obtained a pilot’s license in France, becoming the first black woman in the world to do so. According to newspaper accounts, she also received the first pilot’s license granted to an American woman in Germany and turned down an offer to teach women to fly in Moscow.
She returned to the United States, determined to open a flight school for African-Americans, but again doors would not open for her. She returned to France in 1922 for lessons in stunt work.
When she again returned to the United States, Robert Abbott encouraged her to tour the country, giving exhibitions, flight lessons and lectures, particularly aimed at blacks and women.
Her career was to be short-lived. On April 30, 1926, she was a passenger in a plane flown by William Willis. They were scouting areas for possible parachute landings, and Bessie was not strapped in as she was leaning over the side of the plane to survey the terrain below. At some point, the plane dropped into a steep dive, flipping over and throwing her to her death.
Airplane clubs named for her began springing up all over the country, and in 1931 a group of African-American pilots started the tradition of participating in an annual flyover of her grave in Chicago.