Bessie Coleman
Soaring Over Poverty and Prejudice
Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution SI 80-12873
Working in the fields of Waxahachie, Texas, young Bessie Coleman looked to the sky. "I want to fly away from here," she thought. She did not want to spend her life picking cotton.

She didn't know at the time what she would do. Girls didn't have many choices then, around 1900. And as an African American, she had even fewer choices. But she wouldn't let prejudice, or being poor, or anything else stop her.

Bessie worked hard and was smart. At seven-years old she could figure out how much the foreman should pay her and her mother for their work. Going to school meant walking four miles a day, but she did it.

Bessie later moved to Chicago, still searching for "what she would do." Though that city was also segregated, it offered African Americans more opportunity for work. Bessie became a skilled manicurist. She loved listening to the customers talking about politics, business, and travel. What she heard, and all she read, fed her desire to strive for something better.

Her brothers knew of her ambition and often ridiculed her. One teasingly told her of women in France who flew airplanes. When she heard him, she said: "That's what I will do. I'll fly planes."

Courteousy of BFCA
But no one in the United States would teach a Black woman to fly. So Bessie saved her money, learned to speak French, and went off to France. At age 29, she passed the test and received her pilot's license. She became the first Black woman to ever earn a license from this respected flight school.

Back in the United States, as the only licensed Black pilot, Bessie set another goal; she wanted to open a flight school so other African Americans could learn to fly. She raised money for her school by doing trick flying at airshows and giving lectures. She had one rule: everyone who attends must enter through the same gate—no segregation.

Bessie died in a plane crash caused by mechanical failure. Thousands of people mourned her. Though she did not live to see her flight school in operation, others came along to make it a reality. As a result of that school or Bessie's inspiration, other African Americans learned to fly. And many more learned that they too could overcome poverty, prejudice, and other obstacles to make life better—for themselves and for others.

Bessie Coleman Educational Doll Set

Bessie Coleman Biography