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Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman

(1892 –1926)

An American civil aviator. She was the first of any gender and female pilot of African American descendant to hold and acquire an International Pilot License.

She was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas; she was the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George Coleman who was biracial half black and Cherokee part, and Susan Coleman. When Elizabeth was two years old, her family moved to the city of Waxahachie in Texas. There she lived until the age of 23. Elizabeth began attending school in Waxahachie at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her segregated one room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed all of the academic requirements eight grades in total. Every year, Elizabeth’s routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. In 1901.


Elizabeth Coleman’s life took a dramatic turn when her father George Coleman left his family. He became fed up with the racial barriers that existed in Texas. He went back to Indian Territory which Oklahoma is known for at that particular era, to find better opportunities, but his wife Susan and the children did not go with him.  Elizabeth At age 12 was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University today is known as Langston University.

She completed one term before her money ran out, and returned home. In 1915 at the age of 23 she relocated to Chicago where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she heard stories from pilots returning home from WWI about flying during the war.  Elizabeth was so fascinated about being a pilot that she tried to enroll in various Aviation schools including American flight schools. She could not gain admission in any because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either.

Robert S. Abbott the publisher of the Chicago Defender told her it would be of her best interest and for her success in that field to study abroad.  Elizabeth listened and went to a banker name Jesse Bingal whom gave her the financial backing including Mr. Robert S. Abbott.


Elizabeth Coleman’s aviation license

Elizabeth Coleman plans was France but before she left Chicago she took a French-language class at the Berlitz School in and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920. Elizabeth had her dream she learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.

On June 15, 1921,  Elizabeth “ Bessie” Coleman became  the more than the just the only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique International and the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so, but the first African-American woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license.

Elizabeth Coleman was determined to polish her skills; she spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921 sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States. In the United States she was best known also for her aerial shows.

Elizabeth on April 30, 1926 was in Jacksonville She had just recently purchased a plane the Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas and had it flown to Jacksonville in preparation for an air show.




Her friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, was flying the plane with Elizabeth in the other seat. Elizabeth did not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. Approximately ten minutes into the flight, the plane was in a dive and did not pull out of it instead it completely. Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground. William Wills was unable to gain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it. She was 34 years old.


She was the woman and a beautiful lady who did not take no as an answer because of her gender or color. She went in full passion and force for her dreams and conquered it with all of the best integrity. She was a leader and today an icon for young women.  Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman a true Pioneer.

In her honor a public library in Chicago is named in Coleman’s honor, also a road at O’Hare International Airport.

In 1995 the United States Postal Service honored her by a 32 stamp.






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