Bessie Coleman Black History Month
Black History,  Teaching Tips,  True Stories

Black Pioneers You Should Know: Bessie Coleman

Although February is Black History Month, and March is Women’s History Month, it’s about time that all our history was every month. Black history and Women’s history are American history, and so let’s start treating them as such. You can learn about a modern day space explorer here, but today I want to share the life of a female aviation pioneer, Bessie Coleman.

Image: From WTTW’s ‘Chicago Stories’

Bessie was one of 13 children. Born in Atlanta in 1892, her father, who was of Native American and African American descent, left the family in search of better opportunities in Oklahoma when Coleman was a child. Her mother did her best to support the family and the children contributed as soon as they were old enough.

This Bessie Coleman Pilot’s License craft activity is a hands-on way for students to share what they have learned about Bessie’s life.

Bessie went to university to study agriculture but had to leave after just one term due to financial constraints.When she was 23 she went to live with her brothers in Chicago, and became a manicurist in a local barber shop. Bessie’s brothers fought in WWI, and she loved listening to exploits of the fighter pilots relayed nightly on the news through her radio. She began applying to flight schools across the county but no school would take her because she was a black woman.

Bessie discovered that France was willing to teach female aviators. She decided to apply to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, but first spent many months learning French as the application had to be filled out in the French language.

In just seven months, Bessie earned her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Her next dream was to open her very own flying school in America. To raise money she flew lots of exhibition flights, becoming famous for her daring loop-the-loops and figure of 8 flights. Bessie refused to exhibit anywhere that was segregated, or that discriminated against African Americans.

Bessie Coleman, the first African American licensed pilot shown here on the wheel of a Curtiss JN-4 “Jennie” in her custom-designed flying suit (circa 1924). Smithsonian Institution; NASM92-13721

On April 30, 1926 Bessie took a test flight with an engineer. There were mechanical difficulties in the air when a wrench became lodged in the engine, and the engineer was unable to control the plane. There were no seat belts, nor even a cover on the plane, and Bessie fell to her death. She was just 34 years old.

The Bessie Coleman Aviators Club for Women Pilots fly low over the cemetery where Bessie is buried to drop flowers on Bessie’s grave every year on the anniversary of her death.

Bessie Coleman Aero Club, a club to promote awareness of aviation opportunities to the African American community and open to both men and women (Smithsonian Institute)

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