Bessie Coleman, the daughter of a poor, southern, African American family, became one of the most famous women and African Americans in aviation history. “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bess,” as she became known, faced the double difficulties of racial and gender discrimination in early 20th-century America but overcame such challenges to become the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Coleman not only thrilled audiences with her skills as a barnstormer, but she also became a role model for women and African Americans. Her very presence in the air threatened prevailing contemporary stereotypes. She also fought segregation when she could by using her influence as a celebrity to effect change, no matter how small.
Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to a large African American family (although some histories incorrectly report 1893 or 1896). She was one of 13 children. Her father was a Native American and her mother an African American. Very early in her childhood, Bessie and her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she grew up picking cotton and doing laundry for customers with her mother.
The Coleman family, like most African Americans who lived in the Deep South during the early 20th century, faced many disadvantages and difficulties. Bessie’s family dealt with segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence. Because of such obstacles, Bessie’s father decided to move the family to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. He believed they could carve out a much better living for themselves there. Bessie’s mother, however, did not want to live on an Indian reservation and decided to remain in Waxahachie. Bessie, and several of her sisters, also stayed in Texas.
Bessie was a highly motivated individual. Despite working long hours, she still found time to educate herself by borrowing books from a traveling library. Although she could not attend school very often, Bessie learned enough on her own to graduate from high school. She then went on to study at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, because of limited finances, Bessie only attended one semester of college.
By 1915, Bessie had grown tired of the South and moved to Chicago. There, she began living with two of her brothers. She attended beauty school and then started working as a manicurist in a local barbershop.
Bessie first considered becoming a pilot after reading about aviation and watching newsreels about flight. But the real impetus behind her decision to become an aviator was her brother John’s incessant teasing. John had served overseas during World War I and returned home talking about, according to historian Doris Rich, “the superiority of French women over those of Chicago’s South Side.” He even told Bessie that French women flew airplanes and declared that flying was something Bessie would never be able to do. John’s jostling was the final push that Bessie needed to start pursuing her pilot’s license. She immediately began applying to flight schools throughout the country, but because she was both female and an African American, no U.S. flight school would take her.