Small beginnings: Before Bessie Coleman became the first African-American woman to hold a pilot license, she was giving manicures

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 14, 2024 2:52 PM EDT
Bessie Coleman. Photo credit: Public Domain

When Bessie Coleman heard of the exploits of World War I pilots, she was intrigued. She was working as a manicurist and took a second job as a restaurant manager to save money for aviation school. At a time when African Americans were still battling segregation and fighting for equal rights, Coleman dared to dream. This dream carried her across the Atlantic to make history as the first African-American woman to hold a pilot license. Coleman not only broke barriers for herself but also for coming generations of women and Black people.

“The air is the only place free from prejudices,” Coleman would later say about the barriers she experienced.

Coleman’s early life was typical of poor African-American children in the racially divided south. Born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, she was the tenth of 13 children. Her mother was a maid and her father was a sharecropper. She helped her mother pick cotton and wash laundry to supplement the family’s income. Coleman had to walk four miles daily to a segregated one-room school without adequate school supplies. Despite the hardships, she excelled in math and graduated from eighth grade. 

She was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship at the age of 12. When Coleman turned 18, she took her savings and left for Oklahoma. She enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) Her money ran out after one semester and she had to return home.

At 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her older brother. She worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop where she heard of the remarkable exploits of flying during wartime from from World War I pilots. Her dreams of flying at this point was growing stronger. Hoping to become a pilot, Coleman took a second job as a restaurant manager of a chili parlor.

“I know something that French women do that you’ll never do…fly!” her brother John, who had served in France during the war, once said. This teasing only galvanized Coleman’s dreams of cruising in the skies.

With her savings, Coleman applied to U.S. flight schools. Every school rejected her because they admitted neither African-Americans nor women. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, heard of her plight and publicized her quest for education. Consequently, Black Chicago banker Jesse Binga gave Coleman financial support to aid in the fulfilment of her dreams. She was encouraged to pursue aviation studies abroad.

To become the first African-American pilot, Coleman had to leave America.

“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 and to encourage flying among men and women of our race, who are so far behind the white race in this modern study,” Coleman said of her motivations.

She took a short course in French from the Berlitz Language School and left for Paris in late 1920. In a class of twelve, Coleman was the only woman and the only Black person. She was also the brightest and the most meticulous. She learned how to fly on a prototype Nieuport 82.E2. (nicknamed La Grosse Julie) that could easily be identified due to its black wings. In a record time of seven months, Coleman earned her license from the famed International Aeronautical Federation. She made history as the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license on June 15, 1921.

After graduating, Coleman spent a couple of months of additional training at a facility near Paris. When she returned to the United States, she worked as a restaurant manager to save money to purchase an airplane. Coleman then moved to Orlando, Florida and opened a beauty shop to help finance the purchase of her own plane. Ultimately, she realized that she could make more money by becoming a barnstorming stunt flyer. Her pilot’s license was however inadequate for competing as a stunt flyer and she needed further education.

Consequently, Coleman returned to Europe and completed an advanced course in aviation in France. She then traveled to the Netherlands and Germany where she met one of the world’s top aircraft designers, Anthony Fokker. After training with top pilots at the Fokker Corporation, she returned home to launch her career in exhibition flying. Coleman was catapulted to stardom as one of the country’s top stunt pilots and was nicknamed “Queen Bess” by the media. She flew across the country doing air shows in the hopes of raising money to set up an aviation school for all.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman’s remarkable but brief life came to an end. She was preparing to fly in an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida using a newly acquired Curtiss biplane when the plane began to spin rather than pull out of an intended dive ten minutes into the flight. Her mechanic, who doubled as a publicity agent, was flying the plane while Coleman was scouting the terrain for a parachute jump with her seatbelt unfastened. She was consequently thrown from the plane from a height of about 500 feet and died instantly upon impact. Her funeral was attended by more than 5,000 mourners with many prominent members of black society in attendance.

Although Coleman didn’t fulfil her vision of opening an aviation school, her legacy and impact live on. Coleman aero clubs sprung up across the country following her death. They sponsored the first all-African-American Air Show that attracted more than 15,000 spectators on Labor Day in 1931. “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than a racial barrier. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream,” William J. Powell, a lieutenant serving in an all-black unit during World War wrote in his book Black Wings.

On her first mission in the Space Shuttle in 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, carried Coleman’s picture with her.