Today marks the 125th anniversary of pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman’s birth. She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Born in 1892, Bessie was 11 years old when the Wright Brothers completed the first successful airplane flight. Reading and hearing about the incredible “flying machines” captured Bessie’s imagination and set her on a path to make her own history.
Despite the numerous challenges she faced throughout her young life, at 23, Bessie quit her job as a manicurist in Texas and moved to Chicago, where she worked to save money to attend aviation school. When she finally saved enough money, Bessie tried to enroll in several schools, but was rejected from them all on account of her race and gender. But that didn’t stop this pioneering woman from following her dream.
“Bessie Coleman wanted to fly, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Bessie heard that there was a school in France that would teach her to fly, so she saved some more, traveled to Paris and enrolled at Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. In 1921 she became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
With her license in hand, Bessie went on to train as a stunt pilot, and when she returned to the United States she participated in exhibition flights to packed audiences. Bessie’s daredevil feats became well known, and earned her the moniker “Queen Bessie”. Sadly, her career was cut short. In 1926, at the age of 34, Bessie tragically died in a crash while rehearsing for an aerial show.
In this short video from Smithsonian Channel, aviation experts and historians talk about Bessie’s legacy, and how she inspired generations to dream big. “Bessie Coleman wanted to fly, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”