Bessie was born Bessie Coleman on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman, who were sharecroppers. Although her childhood was undoubtedly a difficult one, Bessie was a happy child, and an extremely intelligent one. She had to walk four miles back and forth to school everyday to her one room, segregated schoolhouse, but she excelled in math and was an avid reader. When she was still a young child, her father, who was half-Native American as well as black, left the family to pursue better economic opportunities in Oklahoma. Susan Coleman and her children elected to stay in Texas, and Bessie often ended up pitching in to help with her younger siblings or to pick cotton.
Bessie completed her schooling up to the eighth grade, and then she began saving for college. In 1910, Bessie entered the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but she was only able to attend for one term before her money ran out. Bessie, who always had her sights set forward, saved up again and moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brother and opened a manicurists shop. One day her brother, looking to tease her, told Bessie that women in France were doing something that Bessie could never do- fly a plane. In response, Bessie began learning French.
Just a few months later, Bessie crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship. She was going to be trained as a pilot at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy, the most prestigious flying school in France. Seven months later she passed the test for her international pilot’s license, making her the first licensed black female pilot in the world. Bessie returned to America intent on purchasing her own plane and starting a flying school for African Americans. However, she soon ran into money problems. She found that pilots could make more money performing stunt shows on rural tour circuits, known as barnstorming. She returned to France in 1922 for advanced aviation training, and began touring as soon as she returned to the U.S. Bessie performed dangerous stunts like wing-walking and parachute jumping to amazed crowds all across the country.
Throughout her increased popularity- among both black and white Americans- Bessie remained true to her goal of increasing equality for African Americans in the world of flying. She refused to perform in a show that didn’t allow black and white people to enter through the same gates, and insisted on desegregation for her audiences. She encouraged fellow African-Americans to fly, believing that “the air is the only place free of prejudice.” Unfortunately, Bessie did not live to see her dream of opening a flight school for black pilots. By 1926, Bessie had finally made the last payment on her own plane, a used model with a lot of engine troubles. One night, she and her mechanic took the plane up in the air for a test run before a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Over three hundred feet in the air the plane malfunctioned, and both Bessie and the mechanic were killed in the crash.
Thousands of people showed up to Bessie’s funeral, held in Orlando, and an additional 15,000 showed up in Chicago to pay their respects. The poor, black daughter of Texas sharecroppers grew up to inspire an entire country in her short life. She proved that not only could black women fly planes, but that they could excel at it. Her legacy inspired black flying groups like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Her fight for racial equality in the skies caused her to break boundaries, and makes her a true pioneer.