The young woman in the cockpit of the biplane studied the control panel, then flipped a switch and signaled to the ground crew. Grabbing the propeller blade, a crew member spun it hard. The engine coughed and sputtered, then caught with a load roar.
After the motor had warmed up, the pilot throttled up and eased the Curtiss JN-4 down the bumpy runway. As the World War I-surplus biplane picked up speed, the pilot eased back on the stick and gently climbed into the air.
Once again, Bessie Coleman—the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license just over a century ago, on June 15, 1921—experienced the exhilaration of soaring through the skies. Having battled gender bias and racism in the U.S., where no flight school would accept her, she had learned to speak French, traveled to France and earned an international certification to fly an aircraft.
As a daring pilot in the early years of aviation, Coleman made many acrobatic flights during her barnstorming trips across America, sometimes parachuting from her plane to the awe of audiences. She was also a force of nature. In an era of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, she was determined to succeed and make her dreams a reality. When told she couldn’t do something, “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”—as she was known to her fans—dug in her stylish heels and made it happen.
“I refused to take no for an answer,” she would say.
“Bessie was a real gutsy woman for the era,” says Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where a collection of photographs and archival materials documents the life of the aviator. “She figured out what she wanted to do and kept at it. It was not easy. Anyone else might have quit at any time.”
Born January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was one of 13 children born to Susan and George Coleman. Her father had Cherokee grandparents. Picking cotton alongside her parents, earning a living as hardscrabble sharecroppers, she was determined to succeed in life despite the odds stacked against her. In the process, this daring aviator and civil-rights pioneer inspired generations of women to soar—both literally and figuratively.
Carole Hopson is one of those women. She learned about Coleman at the same time she decided to chuck an important job in corporate marketing to follow her dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot at age 50. Today, Hopson flies for United Airlines as a first officer on Boeing 737 jets and is also the author of A Pair of Wings, a 2021 novel inspired by Coleman’s exploits.
“When I first learned about Bessie Coleman, I thought I had met a superhero,” she says. “When people told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, I thought of her. Bessie never quit. But more than that, she was a critical thinker. If she found out she couldn’t do something here, she would think, ‘Where can I do it?’ That’s the spark that inspired me.”
In 1915, Coleman joined the Great Migration with millions of other African Americans heading north to escape the oppressive laws in the South. She moved to Chicago and got a job as a manicurist at the age of 23. But Coleman wanted more.
“I want to find a bigger life,” she said. “I want to amount to something.”
According to Gigi Coleman, Bessie’s great-niece who tells her aunt’s story in a one-woman traveling show, flying airplanes was the opportunity she was looking for. Coleman joined a recent panel discussion, hosted by the National Air and Space Museum, along with Philip Hart, author of Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman, Ellen Stofan, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary of science and research, and Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III. “She believed in herself and her determination to follow her dreams to become an aviator was not to be deterred,” says Coleman. “She understood the importance of being educated. Her brothers, who were World War I U.S. Army veterans, told her women were flying airplanes in France, which reinforced her interest.”
“Where [Coleman] was different was her commitment to learning,” adds Lonnie G. Bunch III. “She followed her desire to learn, to really be something different, as she put it to make something of herself, and fell in love with aviation. She took an amazing path … and really to become the symbol of possibility for many generations to come.”
It was Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, who advised Coleman to leave America to pursue her dream. But when she arrived in France in 1921, because of a recent accident, flight schools in Paris were closed to women. “She then hops on a train,” Hopson says, “and goes to the north of France to the best flying school operated by the Cauldron brothers. Bessie convinces them to teach her to fly. That’s where we get this famous quote by her, 'Every no takes me closer to a yes.’ Not only that, she lives nine miles from the school and has to walk to and from it every day.”
After earning her international license, Coleman trained in Germany with former World War I flying aces, who taught her how to handle the primitive aircraft of the day, while executing death-defying feats in the air.
Her return to the U.S., was nothing short of dazzling. Coleman barnstormed the country, making appearances at aviation days and local fairs, and performing her one-woman shows. In Black-owned newspapers, advertisements proclaimed: “See this daredevil aviatrix in her hair-raising stunts.” Thousands of feet above the ground, she executed with ease, barrel rolls, loops and spins; and with another pilot flying, she would walk across the wings, then parachute gently to the ground.
“Bessie Coleman is one of my great heroes,” says Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, and author of the children’s book Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of "Brave Bessie" Coleman. “She told people through her own aerial adventures that anybody could fly.” Lindbergh says she only learned of Coleman’s story in 1987, and wanted to do her part to publicize Bessie’s contributions. “The reality of 1920s discrimination in the United States, which was absolute, is still not fully acknowledged,” says Cochrane. Living in segregated societies, she says, meant that only a few individuals managed to break through to achieve and receive fleeting recognition in various disciplines. “But they were rare,” says Cochrane.
“Bessie Coleman was that achievement anomaly in aviation through sheer will and perseverance. This is why she is so amazing. And though the Black press followed her short career, the white mainstream press did not. So for decades even this barrier breaking Black woman remained unknown and unheralded in history. This is why her story is so compelling today,” says Cochrane.
As Coleman’s star ascended, so did her influence. In segregated America, audiences were forced to use separate entrances to the airshows based on the color of their skin. Coleman refused to fly unless equal conditions were provided for all attendees. Actress, producer and writer, Madeline McCray honors Coleman’s activism in her acclaimed one-woman play Dream to Fly: Bessie Coleman. “Bessie Coleman was an activist,” McCray has said. “She refused to perform in airshows where Blacks were not allowed to use the front entrance. Jim Crow laws were very broad. People couldn’t sit together; they couldn’t come in together. She wasn’t having any of that.”
“The air is the only place free from prejudice,” Coleman told a reporter. “You’ve never lived until you’ve flown.”
On February 22, 1923, after she’d bought her own airplane, a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, Coleman had her first major accident in Los Angeles. At an altitude of 300 feet, her engine stalled and the plane plummeted back to Earth. The young pilot suffered a broken leg, three fractured ribs and cuts to her face.
From her hospital bed, Coleman spoke only of a minor setback and not about a moment that could have ended her life: “You tell the world I am coming back. The fact that I am alive proves that flying in the air is no more dangerous than riding in an automobile on the ground.”
It took Coleman several months to recover from the injuries she sustained in the crash, but she did come back—and with a flourish. She returned to barnstorming and began saving money for another one of her dreams. She wanted to open a flying school so other African Americans could experience the same freedom she felt.
“Blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I have faced,” Coleman said. “So I decided to open a flying school and teach other Black women to fly. For accidents may happen and there would be someone to take my place.”
Coleman’s statement would prove ominous. On April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, she took off in another Jenny biplane in the rear pilot seat with her mechanic William Wills flying the aircraft. Coleman, who wasn’t strapped in, was leaning out over the side, scouting a landing location for a parachute jump planned for later that day.
At 3,500 feet, the plane suddenly nose-dived, went into a tailspin and flipped over. Coleman was thrown from the plane and died instantly when she hit the ground. Wills was killed in the plane crash a few moments later. Investigators later determined it was an accident—a loose wrench had jammed the controls, causing the plane to spin out of control.
Coleman’s death at age 34 was front-page news in the Black press, while the mainstream press focused mainly on the death of Wills. He was white. People were stunned by the untimely end of this dynamic young woman who had accomplished so much in such a short lifespan. Though she never got the chance to open her flying school, her legacy would inspire many other African Americans—both women and men—to learn to fly. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in her memory helping to bring aviation opportunities to the Black community, including many who would join the Tuskegee airman and make combat history during World War II.
Bessie Coleman moved many others to tackle formidable obstacles, including Merryl Tengesdal. The retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force is the first and only African American female to fly the U-2 spy plane. “Like her, I like to push myself to that next level. How far can I take it? How much better can I be as a pilot? The U-2 is a challenging aircraft to fly. It is not for the weak at heart,” she has said. “Bessie Coleman was able to up the bar in terms of who could fly, despite gender and racial barriers of that time.”
Coleman's life was a story of perseverance. "Push harder. Don't give up," says Tengesdal.