Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace


Who was America’s first black female aviator?

In 1921 Bessie Coleman (1893–1926) became the first black woman aviator to gain an international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Coleman, who envisioned opening a flight school, was also the first black woman “barnstormer,” or stunt pilot. In May 1922 she went to Europe for advanced training in stunt flying and parachute jumping, receiving training in France, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. When she returned to Chicago, the Chicago Defender became her sponsor. On Labor Day 1922, Coleman gave her first exhibition in the United States, at Garden City, Long Island, New York. In October of that year she performed in the Chicago region and gave successful exhibitions throughout the Midwest. From 1922 to 1926 she lectured in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere, refusing to perform if the audiences were segregated. She prepared for a barnstorming show in Jacksonville, Florida, to be held on April 30, 1926, as a fundraiser for the Negro Welfare League. When Coleman and her co-pilot, William D. Wills, tried out their open-air plane in preparation for the exhibition, the equipment malfunctioned and both died as a result. Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, one of thirteen children. While Coleman was still a young child, the family relocated to Waxahachie, Texas. She loved to read biographies of black achievers. She spent one year at the Teacher’s College in Langston, Oklahoma, but dropped out for financial reasons. Sometime between 1915 and 1917 Coleman moved to Chicago where her brothers John and Walter lived. There she studied at Burham’s School of Beauty Culture where she learned the beauty trade. She worked as a manicurist at a barbershop near Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played baseball. She earned enough income to relocate her mother and other family members to Chicago in 1917. Coleman heard stories from the men in the barbershop about black aviators in the armed services and those serving with French units. She became so curious about their activities that she read as many articles about black aviators as she could find. After learning that there were women pilots in France and that some American women were pilots as well, she developed an interest in learning to fly. She was encouraged to study in France and entered the most famous flight school in that country. In 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in the Black Heritage Series honoring Coleman.

Daring pilot Bessie Coleman was a famous barnstormer in the 1920s.


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