Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman
26 January 1892 (Atlanta, Texas) – 30 April 1926 (Jacksonville, Florida)
Also known as “Queen Bess”
Today is the 95th anniversary of Bessie Coleman’s death.
Coleman was a trailblazing aviator who was the first Black woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot’s license and the first Black person and first Native-American to hold an international pilot’s license.
Rather than restate the entire Wikipedia article here in my own words, I’ll just recommend it as a good overview of her life with solid citations. Though she died at only 34 years of age, she lived a huge, full, adventurous life.
A few details I gleaned from the public records that I love:
- On 30 January 1917, she married Claude Glenn, a man twice her age. The marriage apparently dissolved almost immediately, but on the 1920 census, she still listed herself as married though they were not living together; however, on her passport application, she wrote “I have never been married” in large letters across the the page, and I love that for her. I think it tells us a lot about her energy.
- From the passport application, we also get a checklist description full of those weird early-1900s details you also see on draft cards (e.g. “chin: sharp”) but a useful bit of info is that she was 5′ 3½” tall — “Though she be but little she is fierce,” to quote Shakespeare.
- On her passport application and on her pilot’s license, she states her date of birth incorrectly as 20 January 1896, shaving a few years off her age (and I think she perhaps just remembered her actual day of birth wrong as it’s consistent across most documents). When she returned to the US from France, sailing from Cherbourg to New York City, she gave her birthday as 20 January 1897, which: good for her. She had to go to FRANCE to learn to fly; she deserved a whole year to make up for that nonsense.
The 1920 census also tells us that Bessie was the head of her household at the time, putting a somewhat different spin on the usual line of “Bessie moved to Chicago and lived with her brothers,” though it’s likely that was the case when she first arrived in 1917.
The 1920 household included three male boarders and her brother Ben (who based on the age given I believe is actually her brother usually called Sam in other records and who was about thirteen years her senior, though I’m not sure if this is our old friend census-taker transcription error or a different name he also went by).
Her nearest-in-age brother John (four years her senior) was also living in Chicago though not apparently with her at the time, but John wrote an affidavit for her passport application in November of that same year shortly before she sailed for France.
The story of how she went from sharecroppers’ daughter in Texas to manicurist in Chicago to barnstorming daredevil pilot is beyond the scope of this blog and available from other, more formal resources (see below), but the key fact is that she did achieve this dream she had — to become not only a pilot but one of the best of her time.
After training in France, she returned to the US and became a celebrated, high-profile aviator and performer in notoriously dangerous air shows all across the country for several years before dying in a tragic accident in 1926. She fell more than 5,000 feet from her plane during a test flight in preparation for a later show when the plane malfunctioned; her co-pilot also died in the crash.
Though her life and career were short, Coleman had a huge impact on flying. Her dream to open a flight school to empower other Black women and men to follow in her footsteps without having to literally go to another country to learn to fly was realized a few years after her death when a colleague opened a flight school named in her honor and helped teach the next generations of Black aviators, inspiring many, including the Tuskegee Airmen.
Her influence is still felt today, and her story continues to inspire adventurers, pilots, and even astronauts (see the American Masters mini documentary, linked below). Her grave is impeccably kept and sits on a hill in Section 9 of Lincoln Cemetery. I hope someday soon we get a luxe Oscar-bait biopic of her life.
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- Bessie Coleman — Wikipedia
- Bessie Coleman — National Women’s History Museum
- American Masters: Aviator Bessie Coleman — PBS
- Bessie Coleman, excerpt from DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis — PBS
- Bessie Coleman — Drunk History (excerpt but if you can find the episode, worth it)
- Bessie Coleman — The History Chicks podcast