Illustrations by Ario Murti

History Makers: Bessie Coleman

She beat the odds and inspired other pilots to take flight.

The crowd looked up. It was 1922, and high above a New York airfield, a small airplane flew in a figure-eight-shaped path. Suddenly, the plane plunged downward. Seconds before it would have hit the ground, the plane swerved back up into the sky. The crowd chanted the pilot’s nickname: Brave Bessie.

Bessie Coleman was famous for her daring and dangerous aviation stunts. But she was more than a daredevil—she was a pioneer. Coleman was the first Black female licensed pilot in the United States.

The crowd looked up. It was 1922, and high above a New York airfield, a small airplane flew in a figure-eight-shaped path. Suddenly, the plane plunged downward. Seconds before it would have hit the ground, the plane swerved back up into the sky. The crowd chanted the pilot’s nickname: Brave Bessie.

Bessie Coleman was famous for her daring and dangerous aviation stunts. But she was more than a daredevil. She was a pioneer. Coleman was the first Black female licensed pilot in the United States.

Dreaming of More

Coleman was born in Texas in 1892. Her father was Black and Native American. Her mother was also Black. Coleman’s family was poor and picked cotton to earn money. From the time Coleman was a child, she hated this backbreaking work.

Dreaming of a better life, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brothers in 1915. Her brother John served in the U.S. military during World War I. When he returned, he teased his sister about the women pilots he had seen while stationed in France.

“He kidded her and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” says Russell Lee, who works at the National Air and Space Museum. “She took it as a personal challenge.”

Becoming a pilot wouldn’t be easy. At the time, there were few opportunities for Black people in the U.S. Many companies wouldn’t hire Black men. Even more of them refused to hire Black women.

Coleman was born in Texas in 1892. Her father was Black and Native American. Her mother was also Black. Coleman’s family was poor and picked cotton to earn money. From the time Coleman was a child, she hated this exhausting work.

Coleman dreamed of a better life. She moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brothers in 1915. Her brother John served in the U.S. military during World War I. When he returned, he teased his sister about the women pilots he had seen while stationed in France.

“He kidded her and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” says Russell Lee, who works at the National Air and Space Museum. “She took it as a personal challenge.”

Becoming a pilot wouldn’t be easy. At the time, there were few opportunities for Black people in the U.S. Many companies wouldn’t hire Black men. Even more of them refused to hire Black women.

Taking Flight

Despite this, Coleman was determined to become a pilot. But none of the schools she reached out to would accept a Black woman. So she moved to France, where she went to flight school. There, Coleman earned her pilot’s license in 1921.

She returned to the U.S. with a new dream—to open a flight school for Black women. While working toward that goal, she became a barnstormer, a pilot who travels around the country performing dangerous stunts.

“She realized the impact she could have on other people by doing this,” says Lee.

Coleman amazed audiences across the U.S. by doing dangerous tricks like loop-the-loops. She even walked on the wing of a plane while a co-pilot took the controls.

In 1923, Coleman’s plane crashed. She was badly injured, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” Coleman wrote in a telegram.

Despite this, Coleman was determined to become a pilot. But none of the schools she reached out to would accept a Black woman. So she moved to France, where she went to flight school. There, Coleman earned her pilot’s license in 1921.

She returned to the U.S. with a new dream. She wanted to open a flight school for Black women. While working toward that goal, she became a barnstormer. They are pilots who travel around the country performing dangerous stunts.

“She realized the impact she could have on other people by doing this,” says Lee.

Coleman amazed audiences across the U.S. by doing dangerous tricks like loop-the-loops. She even walked on the wing of a plane while a co-pilot took the controls.

In 1923, Coleman’s plane crashed. She was badly injured, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” Coleman wrote in a telegram.

Inspiring Others

During a test flight in 1926, Coleman was the passenger in a two-seat plane flown by another pilot. A wrench got caught in the plane’s engine, causing it to flip upside down and nose-dive. The plane crashed, and, sadly, Coleman was killed.

Although she didn’t live long enough to open her school, Coleman was an inspiration to countless others.

During a test flight in 1926, Coleman was the passenger on another pilot’s plane. A wrench got caught in the plane’s engine. This caused the plane to flip upside down and nose-dive. The plane crashed. Sadly, Coleman was killed.

Although she didn’t live long enough to open her flight school, Coleman was an inspiration to countless others.

1. In what way did Bessie Coleman make aviation history?

2. Why did Coleman move to France as a young woman?

3. What happened to Coleman in 1923? What does her reaction reveal about her?

1. In what way did Bessie Coleman make aviation history?

2. Why did Coleman move to France as a young woman?

3. What happened to Coleman in 1923? What does her reaction reveal about her?

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