Bessie Coleman’s Story 

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

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, the daughter of African American sharecroppers. Her father was part Cherokee. One of thirteen children, Coleman grew up in Waxahachie, Texas where she spent most of her childhood picking cotton. In 1915, she moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. In 1919, while working as a manicurist at a barbershop, Coleman overheard customers talking about European women who served as combat pilots during World War I. Inspired by the stories of these brave women, she made up her mind to become an aviator, but was rejected from every aviation school in the U.S. because of her race and gender. Coleman’s perseverance and sponsorship from Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender, made it possible for her to travel to France in 1920 and attend the prestigious Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy to train as a pilot. In 1921, she 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., Coleman became an instant sensation as a barnstormer. Her daredevil aerial performances earned her recognition as “Queen Bess” and “the world’s greatest woman flier.”  Throughout her career, she took a stand against racism, refusing to perform in American airshows with segregated audiences. In 1926, at age 34, Coleman fell to her death during a test flight, before an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida. After her tragic death, her legacy and dream to open a flight school for African Americans was realized by William Powell, an African American aviator and engineer, who was inspired by Coleman and opened the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929 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.

Colonel 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 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,

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. 

“Coleman, Bessie (1892-1926), Aviator: American National Biography.” (1892-1926), Aviator | American National Biography, 16 June 2017,

Online Sources

“Bessie Coleman.” Bessie Coleman, 

“Bessie Coleman.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

Internet Archive

“Coleman, Bessie.” National Women’s Hall of Fame,

Roni. “COLEMAN, BESSIE.” The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), 12 June 2010, 

“Coleman, Bessie.” National Aviation Hall of Fame,

“Bessie Coleman: Women in Aviation International.” WAI,

“Texas Originals.” Bessie Coleman | Humanities Texas,

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