By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
In the same year that Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson – 1921 – Bessie Coleman received her pilot’s license, making her the first African-American licensed pilot in the world. The following year, her first air show took place at Curtiss Field, a flying field that later would become part of LaGuardia Airport.
When Coleman decided she wanted to learn to fly, the double stigma of her race and gender meant that she would have to travel to France to realize her dreams, a fact that makes her accomplishment even more remarkable.
In truth, very few American women of any race held pilot licenses during the 1920s. Those who did were predominantly white, wealthy and a world apart from Coleman, who grew up poor and picking cotton in the fields of an east Texas town, where being black was tough. The school she attended was a one-room shack four miles from home, a distance the six-year-old Bessie covered by foot. Despite all this, she thrived, particularly at math. When she was 18, Coleman went to college, but the small amount of money she was able to put aside lasted only a single term, and she soon returned home.
Determined to make something of herself, at age 23, she took the decisive step of moving to Chicago, where she supported herself with work as a manicurist in a beauty parlor. As men returned home from the First World War, they shared daring and wild tales about airplanes they had seen in the sky. Her brothers taunted her about French women who had learned to fly, which surely lit the fire in her belly to find someone who could teach her how to fly. But even in the Windy City, there was not a soul willing to train a black woman as a pilot.
Coleman learned French at a Berlitz school in Chicago, withdrew her accumulated savings, and attracted the attention of Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender Newspaper and one of the first African-American millionaires. Abbott encouraged her to learn to fly in France. In June 1921, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot’s license.
She received a celebrity’s welcome when she returned to the U.S. Scores of reporters were on hand to herald her achievement as “a full-fledged aviatrix, the first of her race.” As the guest of honor at the all-black musical “Shuffle Along,” the entire audience rose to its feet – including several hundred whites in the orchestra seats – to give the first African-American pilot a standing ovation.
Unlike the celebrity endorsements that helped Earhart finance her flying career, Coleman’s career suffered due to a lack of money and sponsors. At the end, this lack of money may have, in part, caused her death. Unable to afford a new plane, she purchased an older, faulty one. In a practice flight for a show on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Fla., the plane’s controls became stuck. At 3,500 feet, and with her mechanic William Wills at the controls, the plane stalled and plummeted toward the earth, killing them both.
While Coleman is gone, she’s not forgotten. In 1977, a group of African-American pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. Almost 25 years later, a Chicago City Council resolution requested that the U.S. Postal Service issue a Bessie Coleman stamp. The resolution noted that “Bessie Coleman continues to inspire untold thousands even millions of young persons with her sense of adventure, her positive attitude and her determination to succeed.”