Bessie Coleman (Jan 26, 1892 – Apr 30, 1926) was the first African American Aviator and she was also the first Native American to hold a pilot license (International Pilot License).
She was the tenth of thirteen children of a Texas sharecropper but she managed to attend a small segregated one room school where she would walk four miles every day to go to school, unless it was harvest time. She even saved up enough, to attend Langston University. But only attended one term because she ran out of money.
When she was 24 she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers, where she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. While there she heard stories from some of the pilots who were returning from World War I . At that time Women and Blacks were not allowed to attend flight school in the United States, so she decided to save up to learn overseas.
She earn her Aviation Pilots License from the Federation Aeronautical International in France. She even took flight lessons from a French Ace pilot near Paris. And she went to the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker one of the worlds most distinguished aircraft designers and took lessons from one of the companies chief pilots.
When she returned to the United States she became a Barnstormer performing in front of large crowds. In 1922 she performed in front of the All Black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. They were also known as the Harlem Hell fighters. She once said that, “The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation”.
Her pioneering efforts served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women but she died in an accident before she could establish her school for Black Aviators.
Even though she never got her school off the ground, she has received many honors for her efforts;
- The US Postal Service issued a 32 – cent stamp honoring her in 1995.
- In 2001 Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- In 2006 she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
- In 2014 she was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
- Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut in space carried a picture of Bessie Coleman on her first mission.