“The air is the only place free from prejudices”
On this day 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn an airplane pilot’s license.
Inspired by the pilots returning from WWI, Bessie was determined to learn to fly. As a woman and African American, pilots refused to provide flight instruction. Her response to their prejudice, “I refused to take no for an answer.”
Undeterred, she took French language classes and on November 20, 1920, she set sail for France in hopes of avoiding the racial prejudice of her home. Her long journey would pay off and she earned her pilot’s license.
She returned to the United States and became an instant sensation. Unfortunately, if she wanted to fly for a living, she needed more training, but her new found fame wasn’t enough to teardown the racial barriers at home. So again she set sail for Europe where she would receive advanced training from the Dutch aviation pioneer, aircraft designer, and pilot, Anthony Fokker.
When she returned to the United States, she now had the training and confidence to attempt a living in aviation. She joined the barnstorming circuit and quickly became known and respected as Queen Bess.
She spent many years entertaining crowds with her stunt flying and dreamed of one day helping others achieve the same dream. She once said, “I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”
Sadly, her dream was never fulfilled. On April 30, 1926, her dangerous stunt flying career caught up to her and the Lord called this born-again Christian home. At the young age of 34, she lost her life in a crash.
Bessie never let racism and sexism stop her from living her dream. She was one of a few who started the long journey tearing down the barriers placed in front of so many U.S. citizens.
As another famous African American pilot and writer, Lieutenant William J. Powell wrote in a dedication to Bessie, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”