Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, a daughter of sharecroppers, on this day in 1893. Her childhood was typical for an African-American girl of that area and time--she walked four miles to a one-room, ill-equipped school and had nothing. Around 1916, Bessie and her family moved to Chicago to take advantage of the opportunities that were becoming available in the urban North.
Bessie appears to have led a fairly uneventful existence until soldiers returning from World War I with tales of aeronautical adventures lit a spark that was more than a spark. It was an inferno.
How does that work? Where does desire that strong come from in a person? And this wasn't even an ordinary inferno; nothing was going to extinguish this dream.
Bessie worked two jobs, as a manicurist and as manager of a chili parlor, in order to save the money to go to flight school, but no school would take her because of her race and sex. There were, of course, some women pilots at that time, but they were invariably well-off and white. Bessie must have heard "you can't do it" a dozen times a day from those who cared about her and those who didn't. But nothing mattered to her except that she realize her driving ambition.
One impossible dream quickly became two. While the United States was still sexist and racist to its core, France was not. If she learned French and was able to get there, she could become a pilot. Of course, this meant that a great deal more money would be required. Enlisting the help of one of Chicago's only African-American millionaires, Robert Abbott, Bessie was able to go to Berlitz school in Chicago to learn French and was soon off to Paris.
Bessie Coleman was awarded her international pilot's license by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in June of 1921. In September of that year she returned to the United States and for the next five years thrilled audiences with her stunt flying (never at any location that denied entrance to African-Americans), taught other women to fly, and used her position as much as possible to advance the cause of racial equality and women's rights.
Sadly, Bessie Coleman died in a flying accident in 1926.