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Bessie Coleman: Gone But Not Forgotten: Happy Birthday to the First Black Female Pilot

Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926)[ was an early American civil aviator. She was the first woman of African-American descent, and the first of Native American descent, to hold a pilot license. She achieved her international pilot license in 1921.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman went into the cotton fields at a young age while also studying in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University. She developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight training opportunities in the United States, so she saved up money and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.

In 1922, a time of both gender and racial discrimination, Coleman broke barriers and became the world’s first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she took it upon herself to learn French and move to France to achieve her goal. After only seven months, Coleman earned her license from France’s well known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.Though she wanted to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. In 1922, hers was the first public flight by an African- American woman in America.

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Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show which sent her plummeting to her death. She was only 34 years old.Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.
She then became a high profile pilot in early but also dangerous air shows in the United States, and hoped to start a school for African-American fliers. She died in a plane crash in 1926 while testing a new aircraft. Her pioneering role was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African-American and Native American communities.

In 1916 at the age of 24, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I of flying during the war. She took a second job at a chili parlor to save money in hopes of becoming a pilot. As American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor blacks, Robert S. Abbott founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Abbot publicized Coleman’s quest in his newspaper and she received financial sponsorship from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.

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Written by How Africa

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