Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the first Black American female pilot ever.
Her mother was born a slave and could not read. Her father was a black Choctaw Indian. Bessie was the tenth of 13 children (four died young). They had a house on their own little piece of land in Waxahachie, Texas.
She loved to read. Her mother saved money to rent books from the travelling library that came by twice a year. She read the Bible, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar and “Uncle Tim’s Cabin” (she did not want to wind up like Uncle Tom or Topsy!). Most of all she loved the Book of Psalms. She read the Bible to her mother.
She was good with numbers. So, even though she was too much of a daydreamer to be good at picking cotton, she could make sure the foreman did not underpay her family.
She saved money for her education by washing clothes for rich white women across town. Despite that she had in effect only six years of schooling.
She went north to Chicago to live with her older brothers. She lived on the South Side and became a manicurist. When her brothers came home from fighting in France in the First World War they told her about the fighter planes! They said even French women flew planes! From that moment she gave up being a manicurist and started becoming a pilot.
No one in America would teach her how to fly – some because she was a woman, some because she was black. Blacks and women were seen as lacking the brains and courage it took to fly. So she saved her money and learned French.
In 1920, with the help of a black newspaperman and a black banker, she went to France to learn how to fly. By 1922 she was one of the best pilots in the world. Her flying was a thing of beauty and daring.
Once back in America she wanted to open a black flying school. She raised money by giving talks at theatres, schools and churches but, most of all, by giving air shows. Back then air shows were for whites only, but she would only fly if blacks could come too – even when she did air shows across the Jim Crow South.
Unlike Amelia Earhart, she had to use second-hand planes. In 1923 her engine failed. The crash could be heard miles away. But she lived. A few months later she could walk again and was back in the air.
On April 30th 1926 during a practice flight she did not have her seat belt on when the engine failed and the plane spun out of control. She fell 600 metres to her death.
In Chicago 10,000 came to her funeral. People were crying. Her friend and hero Ida B. Wells was there.
Every year on April 30th black pilots fly over her grave in Chicago and drop flowers.