Bessie Coleman’s short life was one of determination and excellence. Her influence stretched way beyond what she could have imagined, inspiring young black children to strive to become whatever they dreamed that they could be.
Born in 1892 of sharecroppers, Bessie always had the desire to amount to something. When one of her brothers returned from WWI in France, he told her of women learning to fly in France. Hearing that, she decided to go to France, take flying lessons and become the first licensed black pilot. She departed for France in November 1919.
In September 1921, she returned to the US with her new pilot’s license in hand and was greeted with a huge amount of press. Quickly realizing that she needed to be a great flyer, she returned to France for additional lessons.
Returning to the US, she was now prepared for what was to come. She made her first airshow appearance in September 1922 in New York. At the airshow, she was checked out in a Curtiss Jenny and flew a flawless performance to an enthusiastic crowd. More airshows followed.
She had a dream of starting a flight school, and to do this, she gave lectures and exhibition flights to raise funds. Along the way, she made a down payment on an airplane, a WWI Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”.
When giving her flight exhibitions, which now included parachute jumps, she would only agree to do so to fully desegregated audiences. The airshow promoters would more often than not agree to do this.
On April 30, 1926, Bessie and her mechanic took to the air in her Jenny for a flight test. While the mechanic was at the controls, something malfunctioned and the mechanic lost control. Bessie was thrown from the airplane to her death.
Only after her death did Bessie Coleman receive the attention she deserved. Her dream of a flying school for African Americans became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929. Many young black persons learned to fly there, some of who would become pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen.