Bessie Coleman

back to honorees

Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman to earn a pilot's license. She was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, growing up in Waxahachie, one of thirteen children born to sharecroppers. At 18, she enrolled in the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Oklahoma, but left after one term to return home, where she picked cotton and worked as a laundress. In 1916, Coleman moved to Chicago, joining her brothers, where she worked as a manicurist. She met many former World War I pilots in her work, developing an ambition to fly. But, there were no opportunities for an African-American woman to learn to fly in America. She learned French, travelled to Paris, and earned her pilot's license in 1921, returning to France in 1922 for advanced training. Coleman toured America, organizing exhibition flights and speaking in churches and schools about the potential of flight and her race. She "wowed" audiences with daring stunts, climbing above the clouds, shutting her engine down, and then diving to within a few feet of the ground, while also performing barrel rolls, figure eights and loops. On April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida, with her mechanic and business agent, who was also the pilot, her plane unexpectedly spun, and Bessie fell from about 2,000 feet, ending her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators. William J. Powell, a black World War I flyer and a close friend founded the Coleman Aero Club in 1929, through which he honored Bessie and encouraged aviation within the black community.
Inducted in 2014.
Portrait Location: Early Flight

Induction Video

San Diego Air & Space Museum

Subscribe to our E-Newsletter

Get Social with SDASM