Celebrating 100 Years Since Bessie Coleman Became the First African American Woman to Receive a Pilot’s License

Bessie Coleman had a short, but pioneering career as a pilot; her goal was to open her own flight school for all interested students. (SI 80-12873)

On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received the first pilot’s license issued to an African American woman and to a Native American woman. The license was issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the aviation licensing body of Europe. In doing so, Coleman, a bravely independent and determined woman, sought to fulfill her mother’s hope for her children: “to amount to something.” In this Jim Crow era, when racism and segregation were both widespread and dictated by law, Coleman’s personal drive and accomplishments are truly astounding. Aviation was new to everyone in the early 1920s as air circuses introduced it to the public via exhibitions and rides. People were not yet traveling by air. Coleman’s remarkable journey reflects the racist and sexist struggles many faced across the nation, and worldwide, in the 1920s—both in the air and on the ground.

Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892—one of 13 children to an African American mother and father (he was also part Native American). They lived on a small farm outside of Waxahachie, Texas, where her father was a day laborer and her mother a domestic worker in a white family home. In 1901, when she was nine, her father left the family for more opportunity (with his Native American heritage) in Oklahoma. The older children started joining the Great Migration north to Chicago and Coleman arrived there in 1915, later followed by her mother and the rest of the family. When Coleman was 27 years old, she found herself at a personal crossroads in 1920s segregated Chicago, seeking opportunities beyond her current job as a manicurist in beauty salons. When her brother, a World War I veteran, taunted her about her future with stories of French women flyers she took it as a challenge: “That’s it… You just called it for me!” She, like many others, had followed press coverage of World War I aviation heroes, but hearing about these French female pilots lit a spark. However, in the United States, Black men were not welcome in aviation, let alone Black women. Determined, even after white pilots refused to give her instruction, Coleman sought advice from Robert Abbot, the publisher of the influential Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, and a constant advocate for the inclusion of people of color in American society. Sensing her commitment, and the resulting publicity if she succeeded, he advised her to learn French and seek training in France where Black people experienced more respect and opportunity than they did in the United States.

Coleman traveled to France twice for flight training–because she could not find training as an African American woman in the United Stations. Passport picture. (SI-92-16052-A)

Accordingly, Coleman enrolled in French lessons, and through jobs, family, and friends, saved enough money to journey to Paris. She was accepted by the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation, a well-respected flight school run by the renowned builders of World War I aircraft. She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 dual-controlled trainer and earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921. Ten months after she moved to Paris, she sailed home, pilot’s license in hand. Though acknowledged by the press in New York City and the Chicago Defender, she quickly determined that more training was needed to safely perform stunts and someday instruct at her own flight school, which was her dream. Coleman returned to Europe to train with veteran war pilots in France and Germany.

On September 3, 1922, in a borrowed Curtiss JN-4D Jenny at Curtiss Field on Long Island, Coleman made the first public flight by a Black woman in the United States. It was followed by a flight in Memphis, Tennessee, and then a triumphant exhibition before the friendly, integrated crowd of 2,000 at Checkerboard Field in Chicago on October 15. However, subsequent flights and film opportunities did not pan out, so in early 1923, she went to California, lured by an advertising venture with Coast Tire and Rubber of Oakland, hoping to break into barnstorming (pilots of the era earned a marginal living by joining aerial circuses or flying from town to town putting on exhibitions and giving rides in biplanes like the Curtiss Jenny).

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SOURCE: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dorothy Cochrane

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