“You have never lived until you have flown… The air is the only place free from prejudice.”

– Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman’s Story 

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892, the daughter of African American sharecroppers. Her father was part Cherokee, and left the family in 1901 to return to American Indian territory in Oklahoma. One of thirteen children, Coleman grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, where she spent most of her childhood picking cotton. She was an avid reader and a strong math student, walking four miles to study at a segregated one-room school, and obtaining a scholarship at age 12 to attend a school run by missionaries. Coleman spent one semester at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Oklahoma, but dropped out because she could not continue to afford the tuition.

In 1915, at age 23, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, as part of the Great Migration. She lived with her brothers and became a manicurist at a barbershop on Chicago’s South Side. In 1919, Coleman overheard customers talking about French women who served as combat pilots during World War I. Inspired by their stories, as well as that of Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, Coleman made up her mind to become an aviator.

After being rejected from aviation schools across the U.S. because of her race and gender, Coleman decided to prepare herself to go to France. She found a higher paying job managing a chili parlor, and took French language classes at night. She also secured financial sponsorship from newspaper publisher Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender, and businessman Jesse Binga, founder of the first privately owned Black bank in Chicago. 

In 1920, Coleman traveled to France by steamship, and attended the prestigious Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy to train for seven months as a pilot. There, and through subsequent training in the Netherlands and Germany, she learned to not only fly a plane, but also perform aerial stunts such as “loop-the-loop,” tail spin, wing walk, and parachute.  

In 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman pilot, and the first African American to obtain an international license to fly. When she returned to the U.S., she became an instant sensation as a barnstormer, touring the country to perform daredevil aerial stunts which earned her recognition as “Queen Bess” and “the world’s greatest woman flier.” 

Throughout her career, Coleman took a stand against racism, refusing to perform in airshows with segregated audiences. She survived her first major accident in 1923, when her airplane crashed in Santa Monica, California. Coleman was pulled unconscious from the wreckage, with a broken leg and several cracked ribs. After two years of convalescence, she made her comeback in 1925 with a tour of Texas, including her hometown of Waxahachie. 

In 1926, during a test flight before an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman fell from the open cockpit of her plane to her death at age 34. Her dream to open a flight school for African Americans was realized in 1929 by African American aviator and engineer William Powell, who opened the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in her honor.

Featured in the Film

Madeline McCray

Actress Madeline McCray is best known for her portrayal of pioneer aviator Bessie Coleman in A Dream to Fly, a solo play she researched and wrote about the world’s first African American woman pilot. McCray’s performance as Coleman was praised as “nothing short of stunning, in its honesty, its passion, its humanity, it takes your breath away” (producer Lawrence D. Poster, Asparagus Entertainment).  McCray is a member of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artist and Actors Equity Association.

Merryl Tengesdal 

Merryl Tengesdal is the first and only African American female U-2 pilot, flying the reconnaissance plane solo on multiple deployments for the U.S. Air Force. She is a Colonel and a retired combat pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earned her Navy wings flying Seahawk helicopters in the Middle East and South America. Tengesdal has held various leadership and training positions, including Director of Inspections for the Inspector General of the U.S. Air Force.

Her Life & Times

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Books & Secondary Sources

Rich, Doris L. Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. 

Bowles, Mark. “Realizing the Dream of Flight: Biographical Essays in Honor of the Centennial of Flight, 1903-2003.” Choice Reviews Online, www.academia.edu/4674055/Realizing_the_Dream_of_Flight_Biographical_Essays_in_Honor_of_the_Centennial_of_Flight_1903-2003

Gems, Gerald R. Before Jackie Robinson: the Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers. University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 

Borden, Louise, et al. Fly High!: the Story of Bessie Coleman. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2001. 

Hart, Philip S. Up in the Air: the Story of Bessie Coleman. Twenty-First Century Books, 2006.

Robbins, Trina, and Ken Steacy. Bessie Coleman: Daring Stunt Pilot. Capstone, 2007.

Bix, Amy. Bessie Coleman: Race and Gender Realities Behind Aviation Dreams. Iowa State University, 2005. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1009&context=history_pubs 

“Coleman, Bessie (1892-1926), Aviator: American National Biography.” (1892-1926), Aviator | American National Biography, 16 June 2017, www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-2001785.

Online Sources

“Bessie Coleman.” Bessie Coleman, http://bessiecoleman.com/ 

“Bessie Coleman.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/

Internet Archive https://archive.org/search.php?query=bessie%20coleman

“Coleman, Bessie.” National Women’s Hall of Fame, www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/bessie-coleman/

Roni. “COLEMAN, BESSIE.” The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), 12 June 2010, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcobq 

“Coleman, Bessie.” National Aviation Hall of Fame, www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/coleman-bessie/

“Bessie Coleman: Women in Aviation International.” WAI, www.wai.org/pioneers/1995/bessie-coleman

“Texas Originals.” Bessie Coleman | Humanities Texas, www.humanitiestexas.org/programs/tx-originals/list/bessie-coleman

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