Before we moved to California two-and-a-half years ago, we lived in suburban Chicago. O’Hare International Airport was our local way out of town for major travel. When we traveled together, we’d get on I-190 heading into the airport, then veer off onto Bessie Coleman Drive to long-term parking. Now, when we fly in to see family downstate, we head to Bessie Coleman Drive to pick up our rental car.
On this date in 1892, Bessie Coleman was born the tenth of thirteen children to George and Susan of Atlanta, Texas. No one had any expectations that she would become a pilot. After all, the Wright brothers didn’t really get off the ground under power until 1903. A life of laundry was Bessie’s likely lot.
To educate herself, she read books as a young girl, books which she checked out from the traveling library that came though town a few times every year. Though she attended school sporadically, she graduated from high school and attended college for a year. But she needed to earn money.
By 1915, she was living with her brothers in Chicago, attended beauty school, and then worked as a manicurist. When her brother John returned from his military service in Europe during World War I, he teased Bessie that French women were ahead of American women: French women could fly!
Because no pilot training was available to an African-American woman in the United States, Bessie Coleman, with the help of a couple of backers, including the publisher of the Defender, went to France for flight instruction. She earned her pilot’s license on July 15, 1921, the first black woman to do so. She was, at that time, the only licensed black pilot in the world.
She went on to a vibrant career flying the Curtiss J4 Jenny and other aircraft on the airshow circuit. Quickly, her nicknames became “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie.” Less than two years after she’d earned her pilot’s license, her airplane stalled and crashed. Bessie Coleman was rendered unconscious, broke several bones, and took more than a year to get back to flying. But she did get back into the cockpit and take to the skies. When she returned to her childhood home of Waxahatchie to perform, she insisted that whites and blacks share a single entrance gate, though the seating areas remained segregated.
Bessie Coleman died when she was just 34 years old. Preparing for an airshow, she was surveying the terrain from the passenger seat when a planned nosedive turned into a dangerous tailspin. She fell to her death from 500 feet. The problem was mechanical; a wrench had become wedged in the gears. Her mechanic, who was piloting the plane, died in the ensuing crash. Her coffin drew more than 15,000 mourners, including equal rights advocate Ida B. Wells, in three separate funeral services. Bessie Coleman is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.
That street near O’Hare in Chicago where we now find our rental car was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive in 1990. In her birthplace of Atlanta, Texas, another Bessie Coleman Drive leads to that town’s small airport. A branch of the Chicago Public Library bears her name, and she is included in the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. Coleman’s face was featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 1995, the same year she was inducted into the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame. A group of pilots has honored her legacy for decades with an annual flyover of her grave.
Bessie Coleman is said to have remarked, “The air is the only place free from prejudices.”