Childhood & Early Life
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, who worked as sharecroppers. Her father was of Native American and African-American descent, while her mother was African-American.
The family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when she was only two years old. At the age of six, she attended a far-away, one-room school in Waxahachie, walking four miles daily. Coleman was brilliant in mathematics, and successfully completed eight grades in that school.
In 1901, her father proposed to move back to Native Indian territory in Oklahoma to escape racial discrimination in Texas, but her mother decided to stay behind. To support the family, her mother started working as a cotton picker and a laundress. Bessie’s two brothers started working as day laborers, while she took care of her two younger sisters.
When she was 12, she received a scholarship from Missionary Baptist Church School in Texas. She funded her studies in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) by working as a laundress. However, she only had enough money for one semester, following which she returned home.
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After returning to Waxahachie, Bessie Coleman continued to work as a laundress until 1915, after which she moved to Chicago to live with her older brother Walter. She found a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop, and soon moved to her own place.
While working as a manicurist, she heard stories about World War I from pilots returning from war. Coleman, who aspired to "amount to something" since she was kid, decided that she would become a pilot. However, she soon learnt that there were no flight schools in the United States that would admit a black woman.
She had developed a friendship with Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the 'Chicago Defender'. He informed her that French were world leaders in aviation and would admit people from any race. She took up another job at a chili parlor to raise funds and also learnt French at the Berlitz school in Chicago.
On November 20, 1920, she left for Paris, funded by Abbott and Jesse Binga, a realtor and a banker. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane and obtained her 'Fédération Aéronautique Internationale' license on June 15, 1921, from Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy.
After training in Europe for couple more months, she returned to the US in September 1921. She immediately gained the attention of newspapers, all eager to tell her extraordinary story. However, she also realized that to earn a living as a pilot, she has to become a barnstormer.
To strengthen her skills as a competitive exhibition flier, she travelled back to Europe in February 1922. She pursued an advanced course in aviation in France, and visited Netherlands and Germany for additional training.
Returning back to New York in August 1922, she began her career in exhibition flying. To gain publicity and exposure, she started to appear more at public events and gave dramatized speeches on her adventures.
On September 3, 1922, she appeared for the first time in an American air-show. The event, held at Curtiss Field and sponsored by her friend Abbott, was in honor of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. She performed alongside eight other top American pilots.
In December 1922, she was offered a role in a feature film titled 'Shadow and Sunshine'. She hoped the role with give her further exposure, but the stereotypical portrayal of her race in the film disgusted her so much that she walked out of the project.
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She soon announced her goal to establish a flight school to teach aviation to people of all race, especially blacks. She managed to earn money to buy her own plane by air-dropping advertising leaflets for a tire company.
She never backed off from dangerous stunts and performed difficult maneuvers like figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips. She met with an accident on February 22, 1923, which destroyed her new Jenny aircraft and injured her badly. Bessie was hospitalized for three months.
It took her another eighteen months to recover and secure new sponsors for exhibitions. She opened a beauty shop in Orlando, Florida, to raise additional money. She eventually managed to buy another Curtiss JN-4, but did not have enough time to establish the aviation school.
Personal Life & Legacy
On December 30, 1916, Bessie Coleman reportedly got married to Claude Glenn, who was a friend of her bother and was 14 years older than her. However, they soon separated, and she and her family never publicly acknowledged the relationship.
She died on April 30, 1926, in a plane crash while testing out her new Jenny aircraft during preparation for an exhibition for May Day celebrations. Coleman, who was in the second seat looking over the cockpit to prepare for the next day's show, was thrown out of the plane after pilot William D. Wills lost control of it.
In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp to honor her memory. In 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.