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First Black Female Aviator

Despite fierce obstacles in her path, Bessie Coleman inspired generations of women to soar - both literally and figuratively.

Bessie Coleman standing beside her bi-plane

Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license just over a century ago, on 15 June 1921, battled gender bias and racism in the U.S., where no flight school would accept her; so she learned to speak French, traveled to France and earned an international certification to fly an aircraft.

As a daring pilot in the early years of aviation, Coleman made many acrobatic flights during her barnstorming trips across America, sometimes parachuting from her plane to the awe of audiences. She was also a force of nature. In an era of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, she was determined to succeed and make her dreams a reality. When told she couldn’t do something, “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie” - as she was known to her fans - dug in her stylish heels and made it happen.

“I refused to take no for an answer,” she would say.

“Bessie was a real gutsy woman for the era,” says Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where a collection of photographs and archival materials documents the life of the aviator. “She figured out what she wanted to do and kept at it. It was not easy. Anyone else might have quit at any time.”

Born 26 January 1892 in Texas, Coleman was one of 13 children born to Susan and George Coleman. Her father had Cherokee grandparents. Picking cotton alongside her parents, earning a living as hardscrabble sharecroppers, she was determined to succeed in life despite the odds stacked against her. In the process, this daring aviator and civil-rights pioneer inspired generations of women to soar - both literally and figuratively.


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