“I made up my mind to try;
I tried and was successful.”
The world did not believe in Bessie Coleman. White Americans never thought that Black people could become pilots. Many men—heck, even Bessie’s own brother—told her that women couldn’t, either. But Bessie believed in herself, and she went out and did her country proud anyway. So if anyone tries to tell you that you can’t do something because of who you are, just think back to this amazing, brave, high-flying lady.
Bessie was born in the tiny settlers’ town of Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892—one of thirteen children born to Susan, likely a former slave, and George, who was three-quarters Cherokee. Times were hard; just because the Civil War had ended almost thirty years ago didn’t mean that things were all freedom and privilege for Black people in the American South. Neither of Bessie’s parents could read or write. More than a hundred lynchings took place in the South annually, and anything from “this Black person got gainful employment” to “this Black person tried to defend their property from gangs” could spur a violent mob. Because of racist poll taxes and literacy tests, Black Americans were unable to vote or have representation in the government. Jim Crow segregation meant that Black people were forbidden from riding in the same rail cars, attending the same schools, or using the same water fountains as white people. With more and more of their land and rights stripped away every year, Native Americans in Texas weren’t exactly having a great postwar life, either. Add to this dismal situation the depression that struck the nation in 1893, and things were kind of garbage for anyone who wasn’t a rich white dude in the South.
Despite this challenging climate, Bessie’s dad managed to get his hands on a quarter of an acre for $25 in a Black area of Waxahachie, Texas. Two-year-old Bessie’s family moved into a small, three-room shotgun home and joined the town’s booming cotton industry. But then George decided he was not about that racist Texas life, and he left for the Oklahoma-adjacent Indian Territory, where he would encounter less discrimination. Susan and the family stayed behind in Texas, which meant that Bessie, on top of her four-mile walk to a segregated one-room school overseen by an underqualified teacher, now took responsibility for her three younger sisters while her mom worked as maid and cook for a local white family.
Though it’s easy to be like, “Yeah, that’s rough, but I do my own laundry, too,” let’s not forget that Bessie was doing all this work with no electricity or running water, which meant lots of hefting heavy water buckets, labor-intensive scrubbing, and babies screaming by candlelight—all while Bessie was nine years old. In addition, every summer the annual cotton harvest interrupted her schooling, a disruption that Bessie hated (she was really good at math, for one thing). The budding girl genius would much rather be at home, reading aloud to her fam from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or nonfiction books about Harriet Tubman that her mother picked up at the traveling cart library.
By age eighteen, Bessie felt a drive to “amount to something,” which prompted her to save enough money to enroll as “Elizabeth” at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University, located in a Black municipality in Langston, Oklahoma. After cash ran out during her first semester, however, she was forced to head back to Waxahachie—with the university band in tow, lauding her arrival as though she was about to play in the Rose Bowl. (Another good moral: next time you want to make the best out of a bad situation, just get a marching band to tail you wherever you go.)
By 1915, after years of humiliating and painful work as a town laundress (for which she was forced to leave clothes on her white clients’ back steps to avoid being seen), twenty-three-year-old Bessie was ready for change. She bought a ticket to Chicago, climbed aboard the cramped, uncomfortable rail car designated for Black women, and made the twenty-hour trip, arriving in the city and moving in with her two brothers—Walter, a Pullman train porter, and Johnny, technically unemployed but probably funemployed by the mob, if you know what I mean. The three of them lived in the city’s South Side, home to 90 percent of Chicago’s Black population (a population that doubled in the decade between 1910 and 1920) and where all classes mixed together in relative peace and harmony. Since she hated what she perceived as the degrading nature of domestic service, Bessie enrolled in beauty school to become a manicurist and set up shop at a barber’s on “The Stroll” (eight blocks of radness that was basically the Black Wall Street and Broadway combined). Soon she was giving perfect pedis to Chi-town’s Black elite; she even won a contest for Black Chicago’s fastest and best manicurist.
But Bessie wouldn’t be buffing and polishing for long. Shortly after her move to Chicago, Johnny, who was a veteran, happened to mention to his sister that he thought French women were superior to American women because the former “could even fly airplanes.” Instead of merely pointing out his flawed logic, Bessie decided to go ahead and prove him wrong by attempting to enroll at every flight school in the country.
I say “attempted” because—surprise!—American flight schools were not okay with a woman, let alone a Black woman, becoming a pilot. The friendly skies of the United States were anything but for a woman like Bessie, and life on the ground in Chicago was no picture of perfection either, thanks to brewing race riots. Luckily, Bessie had met a lot of influential folks at her manicure table and the Stroll’s nighttime hotspots—including her mysterious husband, Claude Glenn, a man fourteen years her senior whom she had quietly wed in 1917 but likely never lived with (and then basically never spoke of again—safe to say they separated). Deciding that she would train in France, just like the pilots her brother was so all about, Bessie used her social smarts and some serious pluck to secure funding from one Robert Abbott (editor and founder of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper read by 500,000 people) and Jesse Binga (a bank owner and real estate mogul who made his fortune by selling homes in rich white neighborhoods to Black families at a discount, then buying up the rest of the homes in the area as white residents fled). She started managing a chili joint and taking night classes in French and filled out a passport application (on which she said she was an unmarried manicurist). Then, on November 20, 1920, twenty-eight-year-old Bessie headed to Paris on her own.
In France, Bessie was on it. For instruction at the Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudon at Le Crotoy, she walked the nine miles to the airfield each day. She flew in an unstable Nieuport Type 82 biplane and once watched a classmate die in training. Her course was supposed to take ten months, but she finished in just seven; after nailing the final test of a figure-eight and an exact landing, she earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 (two years before Amelia Earhart!). Bessie Coleman was officially the world’s first Black aviatrix.
The next September, she sailed back to New York, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Black media were all about her. The brush with fame was great (and probably felt incredibly validating in a “told ya so, bro” kind of way), but standing ovations when she attended musicals wouldn’t pay the bills. Commercial flights weren’t really a thing yet (keep in mind this is only about twenty years after the Wright Brothers), so she was unable to earn money that way either. Besides, Bessie wanted to use her powers for good, not just for cash; her ultimate goal was to teach Black kids about airplanes and “make Uncle Tom’s cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school.”
So Bessie headed back to Europe, where she spent time in Germany and the Netherlands learning how to be a proper “barnstormer,” a trick flier who did amazing (and amazingly dangerous) air stunts for crowds at airshows. She even put together her own superhero costume, complete with military jacket, high lace-up boots, a leather coat, and goggles. With her act perfected, and some sponsorship from her old friend Robert Abbott, who publicized her as “the world’s greatest woman flier,” she returned to the States ready to perform—and the public was definitely ready to watch. In a rare instance of the white media acknowledging the accomplishments of a Black woman, the New York Times covered her first airshow in New York, reporting in an article entitled “Negress Pilots Airplane” that “about 1,000 spectators, mostly negroes, saw the exhibition, which was in honor of the Fiftieth (negro) Infantry regiment, New York National Guard.”
Flying World War I Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes, Bessie went on to perform across America, including a terrifying performance in Los Angeles during which her old plane engine crapped out midflight, nosedived at three hundred feet, and left her with several broken ribs and a broken leg (she recovered from her injuries in Chicago while giving lectures). But Bessie wasn’t just doing daredevil stunts; she was also campaigning for equality. On a visit to her hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, Bessie refused to fly if organizers used segregated entrances. After they agreed not to segregate the event, she directed her team to airdrop leaflets about the event onto nearby Black neighborhoods. She even took Black women on passenger flights after a Houston show, “the first time colored public of the South ha[d] been given the opportunity to fly,” according to the Houston Informer. And on top of all that, “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie,” as the media dubbed her, opened a beauty shop in Orlando, lectured across America to inspire Black youths to become pilots, took a job doing airborne advertisements for Coast Firestone Rubber, and toyed with the idea of a movie career—which she promptly dropped when she was cast as a stereotypical downtrodden enslaved woman. (Billboard called her “temperamental” and “unreliable,” but you know she was just taking a stand against racist garbage.)
A tale as rad as Bessie’s had to come to an end eventually. At age thirty-four, when she was close to opening her own flight school, Bessie had finally saved up enough money (and gotten a little financial boost from her friends) to purchase her own Jenny. The plane was in Dallas, but at the time Bessie was in Jacksonville, so she had William Willis, her twenty-four-year-old white mechanic and sometimes-publicist, fly it over for her. The plane was super old and super trash—so much so that it needed several emergency landings during the trip to Florida. Once William arrived, Bessie’s friends and family begged her not to fly, but Bessie wanted a test flight to ensure that everything was in working order. So on April 30, 1926, she and Willis took the bird up before a show for Orlando’s Negro Welfare League’s May Day celebration, with Willis in control so Bessie could undo her seatbelt and lean out of the plane to assess the best location for a parachute jump. But the plane was indeed busted, and after a mere twelve minutes in the air it took an unexpected dive and flip, hurling Bessie to her death thousands of feet below (she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt). Shortly thereafter, Willis hit the ground in a fiery blaze and died on impact. A wrench stuck in the gearbox had caused the engine to malfunction.
It was a tragic—and perhaps foreseeable—end to a life of bravery and risk. But risk had always been part of Bessie’s life as an aviatrix, and it was that kind of danger that made her job and her journey so interesting and inspiring to millions of Americans. A half century after her death, the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club for women of all races was founded in Chicago, and every year on the anniversary of her death their pilots airdrop flowers on her grave. She has a road named after her at O’Hare Airport, a Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago, and a postage stamp with her face on it. But beyond all the nifty tributes, Bessie inspired countless Black women to fight for their dreams, even when racist institutions (or rude brothers) try to stop them.
“Because of Bessie Coleman,” said Lieutenant William J. Powell in 1934, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”