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Coleman, Bessie (1892–1926)

In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to gain an international permit to fly. After learning French, she attended the famous flight school Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudron in Northern France. No schools in America would train a black person. She was inspired to fly by the stories of Frenchwomen flyers told by her brother John, who had served in France during World War I. Coleman performed acrobatics in air shows around the country and gave lectures inspiring audiences that included many children. She believed that there was freedom in the skies and would not perform in an air show with a segregated audience. On April 30, 1926, she was killed in an airplane piloted by William Wills, her mechanic and publicity agent, as he flew her over the field of the next day’s air show in Jacksonville, Florida where she was slated as the star. Coleman who was 34 at the time of her death, had just purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) airplane in Dallas, which Willis flew to Jacksonville in preparation for the show.

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892 as the tenth of thirteen children to parents George and Susan Coleman. The family settled in Waxahachie, Texas, and worked as sharecroppers. Her mother encouraged Bessie’s schooling when she showed an aptitude for math. At the age of 18 Coleman enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma.  She remained their one term.  In 1916 aty the age of 23 she moved to Chicago, Illinois where she lived with her brother Walter, a Pullman porter. Coleman became a manicurist and worked in the Chicago White Sox barbershop.

Hearing stories from pilots returning home from World War I encouraged Coleman to think about flying but when she attempted to enroll in flight schools she was turned down because she was black and a woman.  When no black U.S. aviator would train her, Coleman received encouragement and financial support from Robert Abbott, the editor of the

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