Sept. 3, 1922
Bessie Coleman became the first female pilot of color to take part in a flying exhibition in the U.S., performing over New York’s Long Island.
Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, to a Native American sharecropper and an African-American maid, she excelled in school. At age 23, she moved from Texas to Chicago, where she worked as a manicurist.
Her brothers, who both fought in World War I, talked of the flying machines and how women in France could be pilots. She decided she would fly, too, but every U.S. flight school she tried turned her away because she was a woman or because she was black — or both. She saved her money and traveled to France, where she learned to fly and obtained her international pilot’s license in 1921.
After her first exhibition, she continued to fly, wowing integrated audiences across the U.S. and Europe with her flying stunts. Asked once how she overcame racism and other obstacles, she replied, “I refused to take no for an answer.”
She dreamed of opening her own flying school and survived her first major airplane accident in 1923 when her engine stopped working and she crashed. By 1925, she was back in the skies, performing again. A year later, she took a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills, who was piloting that day. A loose wrench reportedly fell into the engine, causing the plane to crash. A reported 10,000 attended her Chicago funeral, where crusader Ida B. Wells spoke.
Starting in 1931, Black pilots in Chicago would fly over her grave in Lincoln Cemetery and drop flowers. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club also opened, training many Black pilots, including Willa Brown and the Tuskegee Airmen.
In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp honoring her. In 2021, an all-Black female crew flew on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Phoenix in honor of her becoming the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license and calling attention to the lack of Black women in the commercial airline industry — less than 1%. In 2023, the U.S. Mint depicted her in its series, “American Women Quarters Program.”