When I was in the third grade at Kate Bell Elementary School, in Southwest Houston, my classmates and I dressed up as historical figures in honor of Black History Month. Donning a set of oversized goggles from our local Party City and a borrowed costume from a friend of my dad’s, I came to school as Bessie Coleman, the Texan pilot and adventurer. In front of my classmates, I presented what I knew about Coleman’s life—about her experiences in France, how she became famous with her stunt flying career, and the fact that she was born right in our state of Texas. I was thrilled to carry the largely unknown story of a black woman adventurer to my classroom.
Coleman’s accomplishments hardly stop at being the first black and Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license, or becoming the first black person to hold an international pilot’s license. While Coleman’s story isn’t generally taught in history books—in Texas or elsewhere—her legacy has influenced countless other black women, underrepresented aviators, and marginalized people.
She was born into extreme poverty on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas. Coleman’s parents, George and Susan, were sharecroppers who, in trying to provide for their thirteen children, eventually moved to Waxahachie when she was two. Jim Crow laws were still deeply entrenched, and especially affected families like the Colemans who had both black and Native American ancestry. Her father later moved to Indian Territory (later known as Oklahoma), leaving his wife and family behind, in an attempt to escape racism.
Coleman would begin her own journey away from Texas years later when she attended Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University)—she was always an exceptional student, with a particular aptitude for math. Her finances ran out while she was there, though, and she opted to not finish the program. Instead, she went to Chicago to join her brothers, who’d fled the segregated Deep South. While working at a barbershop there, Coleman heard former WWI pilots discussing their flight adventures during the war, which piqued both her lifelong interest and career in aviation.
Becoming a pilot in the United States was a dramatically different experience in the early twentieth century versus today. Obtaining the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airline Transport Pilot certificate requires a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time and a series of other certifications in 2020. But back then training was done on an ad hoc basis, according to Ohio State University aviation historian Adam Beckman. Rather than go through a licensing program with the federal government or formal aviation school, prospects instead had to find a pilot who would be willing to take them in the sky for a few hours and show them the ropes.
For someone like Coleman, as well as other black aviation enthusiasts, the difficulty of locating a (likely white) pilot willing to be seen with them and teach them how to fly was a pervasive issue around the nation. “It wasn’t necessarily a function of that location, it was really more a function of the racism [toward] African Americans,” Beckman says. “And then in her case, there was a double whammy of that time period of people thinking women are just inferior and can’t do that type of stuff.”
Despite her efforts, Coleman wasn’t able to find any white pilots to train her in the Midwest. So she looked toward France to move up in her career—not unlike essayist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone. With the support of powerful black banker Jesse Binga and Robert S. Abbot (of the Chicago Defender) helping her with finances, as well as other black mentors in the community, Coleman traveled there in 1920 with the intention of becoming a pilot.
In Paris, she obtained her license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, becoming the first black person to do so. There, she also mastered advanced aviation maneuvers, such as the “loop-the-loop,” that would inform the rest of her career.
After returning to the United States in late 1921, though, Coleman struggled to find work as a commercial pilot. In February of 1922, she returned to Europe to learn how to become a stunt flier, the only form of flying that allowed her to make a living. Coleman studied aircraft manufacturing under aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker, who once noted how ambitious Coleman was as a student, and how skilled of a pilot she came to be.
Coleman returned to the U.S. again—and became an aviation superstar. Known as “Queen Bess,” she wowed audiences with the likes of “figure 8” stunt flying techniques at air shows, and was dubbed “the world’s greatest woman flier” at age thirty. With her newfound fame, she continued bucking conventions. “She came back to the United States and started doing public flights and air shows specifically for African Americans, because she was adamant about showing her people and especially women that ‘yes, you can do this,’” says Benét Wilson, an aviation journalist. “You can learn to fly.”
She vowed to perform for African American audiences across the country, but she especially made a point to do so in the South. Coleman traveled all around Texas, many times by plane, including to Atlanta, Waxahachie, and Houston, refusing to perform unless black people were allowed into the shows. Once, Coleman was top billed at an air show in Waxahachie and almost didn’t go on until event organizers allowed black patrons to sit in the same audience area as other visitors instead of segregating them. “The show just didn’t go on without her,” says Linda Street-Ely, a Texas-based pilot. “They said, ‘We’ll do anything, we want you here.’ And she convinced the show promoters that she was right and they were wrong.”
Coleman also was a prolific public speaker, and used podiums at schools and churches to encourage black men and women to pursue aviation careers of their own, Street-Ely says. “The air is the only place free from prejudices,” Coleman said during her career. “I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of our race who are so far behind the white race in this modern study.”
She remained committed to desegregation efforts until her untimely death in 1926, at age 34, when she fell out of her old, unstable plane during a practice flight in Jacksonville, Florida (after local renters prevented her from renting a better plane because she was black). African American journalist and abolitionist Ida B. Wells spoke at Coleman’s funeral, where she was joined by five thousand mourners.
Though Coleman moved away to pursue her career, and had a complicated relationship with the South, Texas was home—and she yearned to give black Texans opportunities that hadn’t been offered to her growing up. Coleman’s untimely death cut many dreams short, one of which, according to Texas Southern University history professor Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, was planned for Houston: she aspired to build an aviation school right in Space City, but never had the opportunity to before her passing. “Had she lived to establish her flight school, her life would definitely have been celebrated,” Kossie-Chernyshev says in an email to Texas Monthly. While Texas scholars and aviation experts alike have studied and presented Coleman’s life in their work, she, along with other noted black Americans, have often been relegated to African American studies electives, rather than core U.S. history classes. It’s something researchers like Kossie-Chernyshev hope to change.
As Wilson notes, Coleman’s influence extends to the careers of Emory Malick (the first black man to earn a pilot’s license in the United States), Willa Brown (the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and a mechanic’s license), and C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, the father of black aviation and first black pilot instructor at Tuskegee Institute. After Coleman’s death, black aviators, including William J. Powell, founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. Today, the Bessie Coleman Scholarship Awards have financially supported women and students of color pursuing aviation careers, and Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001 and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006. A middle school in Cedar Hill, Texas, is named after her, too.
In recent years, Coleman’s life and story has been increasingly (albeit slowly) recognized. The New York Times overlooked obituary project nodded to Coleman in a December 2019 piece, and she was honored at the Southern Museum of Flight. “Her experience was so outside the norm for most women, let alone black Texas women, that her story appeared more an exception than the rule,” Kossie-Chernyshev says. “Coleman’s bold commitment to live life on her own terms offers a very important lesson on the importance of pursuing one’s dream. … making the history of African American agency all the more rich.”
“She bettered an entire industry,” says Street-Ely. “We are all better off because of her.”