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AFA Celebrates Black History Month - Bessie Coleman (1892 - 1926)

Date: February 6, 2021

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
- The history of aviation is paved with firsts, great men and woman who carved the way for the industry we know today. One of its pioneers was Bessie Coleman. Born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892 to Susan and George Coleman she was one of twelve siblings. Bessie grew up helping her mother to pick cotton and took in laundry to earn extra money. When she was eighteen, she had saved enough money to attend the Colored Agriculture and Normal University. She left the university after one semester because she couldn’t afford to attend.

Bessie first learned about female pilots flying in France when she was twenty-three. She applied to flight schools across the country, but none would accept her because she was African American and a woman. Despite the obstacles she remained undeterred and pursued flight school in France. Yet another hurdle presented itself when applications were required to be submitted in French. Bessie took night classes to prepare and finally she was accepted at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation. On June 15, 1921 she received her international pilots license and then in 1922 she performed the first public flight by an African American woman.

Having succeeded in her dream, she wanted to share her gift with others. She performed for crowds and became popular in Europe and America and toured the country giving lessons and encouraging more African American women to become pilots. Bessie stood against racism and segregation refusing to perform anywhere that discriminated against African Americans and she was famous for standing up for her beliefs.   

Her incredible career was short lived. On April 30, 1926 Bessie Coleman died while on a test flight with William Wills when she was flying as a passenger. Wills lost control of the aircraft when a wrench came loose during flight. The airplane flipped and Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt. Planes at this point did not have a roof or any kind of protection. Coleman was found near the plane crash. Her loss was devastating to the community of followers she built, but her success and spirit live on as an inspiration.  She is proudly remembered as a pioneer for African Americans and women everywhere.

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