Bessie Coleman, 1st American Aviatrix

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Elizabeth 'Bessie' Coleman

Also Known As: "Glenn"
Birthplace: Atlanta, Cass County, Texas, United States
Death: April 30, 1926 (34)
Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida, United States (fell from an airplane while practicing for a parachute jump.)
Place of Burial: Blue Island, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of George Coleman and Susan Coleman
Wife of Claude Glenn
Sister of Alberta Cato; Walter Samse Coleman; Osa Coleman; John W Coleman; Elois Stallworth and 2 others

Occupation: Pilot
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Bessie Coleman, 1st American Aviatrix

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African American descent and the first person of African-American descent to hold an international pilot license.

Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers George, who was part Cherokee, and Susan Coleman.[4] When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23.[4] Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six and had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed all eight grades of her one-room school. Every year, Coleman's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest. In 1901, Coleman's life took a dramatic turn: George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory as it was then called, to find better opportunities, but Susan and the children did not go with him. At age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She completed one term before her money ran out, and she returned home.

In 1916 at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist, where she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from a banker named Jesse Binga and the Defender.

Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."

On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first woman of African-American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, and the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so, but the first woman of African-American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

She was planning to open a flying school for young African Americans when tragedy struck. While flying in the rear seat with a student pilot at Jacksonville, Florida, the controls of her aircraft jammed. Coleman, who was normally very safely conscious, was not wearing her seat belt (perhaps to do a more thorough assessment of landmarks for the following day's airshow and parachute jump) and fell from the aircraft when it flipped over at an altitude of 3,000 feet. The student pilot, who was strapped in, was also killed when the aircraft crashed about 1800 feet from where Ms. Coleman struck the ground. On each anniversary of her death, pilots have dropped flower arrangements on her grave. Lincoln Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

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Bessie Coleman, 1st American Aviatrix's Timeline

January 26, 1892
Atlanta, Cass County, Texas, United States
April 30, 1926
Age 34
Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida, United States
April 30, 1926
Age 34
Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States