Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the first African American woman to earn an aviator’s license.  Unable to find anyone willing to train a black woman to fly in the US, Bessie learned French so that she could learn to fly in France.  She was the first American of any race or gender to earn an international pilot’s license.  

Bessie died at age 34 during a test flight for an exhibition in Jacksonville, Florida.

Bessie is profiled in a Smithsonian Channel documentary entitled Black Wings, which is airing this month.  An excerpt from the documentary can be seen here.  If you are interested in black female pilots, check out the novel Flygirl.


Black Heritage Stamps with Ella Fitzgerald, Hattie McDaniel, Madam C.J. Walker, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Bessie Coleman, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Marian Anderson, Shirley Chisholm.


5 Year Old Girl Recreates Photos of Historic Women

Lily Bushelle as: 

Singer, songwriter, Civil Rights activist Nina Simone

Actress, record producer Grace Jones

Pilot Bessie Coleman

Nobel Prize laureate & education activist Malala Yousafzai

Dancer, singer, actress Josephine Baker

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm

Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot, on January 24, 1923. Coleman was a 28-year-old manicurist in Chicago when she became interested in aviation. After being rejected by every flying school she applied to, Coleman took the advice of Chicago Defender publisher Robert Abbott and went to France to learn to fly. Before she left, she learned French at a Berlitz school in the Chicago loop and, with financial support from Abbott and her own savings from her work as a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor, Coleman left for Paris on November 20, 1920. 

Ms. Coleman performed in countless air shows over the years and encouraged other African-Americans to learn to fly before her own tragic death at age 34 on April 30, 1926. Her funeral, attended by 10,000 mourners on Chicago’s South Side, was presided over by the legendary journalist and activist Ida B. Wells.


Awesome women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields!

Edit (3/27/15): “Where’s Marie Curie?! Where’s Ada Lovelace?! Where’s etc.”


1.  Katherine Sui Fun Cheung - Stunt Pilot and first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

2. Barbara Ann Allen Rainey - First female pilot in the U.S. military.

3.  Sabiha Gökçen - First woman to fly a fighter plane in combat.

4. Touria Chaoui - First female pilot in Morocco and seen as a symbol of independence from France.

5. Bessie Coleman - First African American to gain a pilot’s license, an international one since her home country would not train her.

I read this quote, from an interview with Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, and the interviewer asked about why she was a pilot and all that, and she just said “I wanted to fly, so I did.” And I thought MAN! I can’t even figure out what to eat for breakfast, never mind sailing through a load of barriers just because I think I want to give something a shot. “Flying? Whatever, I’ll just Do It, it’s 1932 or something, I don’t care.”

Another quote? “What’s the point of flying a plane if you can’t have fun doing it?”

Look at her! We all want to be her.

I love early aviatrices - Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, etc - they were like “oh is there a brand new job on the face of the earth? Think I’ll invite myself to do it before anyone says I can’t.”

Not too much time goes by before Top Gun washes up once again on these shores and that is a fact.



Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

  • Katherine Cheung was born in Canton, China in 1904 and immigrated to America when she was 17
  • She first pursued a career in music which led her to enroll at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music
  • Katherine earned a Bachelor of Music degree in piano and went on to train at California State Polytechnic University Pomona and USC
  • She became interested in aviation after her father took her to Dycer airfield to teach her how to drive
  • While there she saw planes take off and land which sparked her interest in aviation
  • Around that time, George Young, her father’s business partner, proposed to her and she accepted under the condition that she could keep her last name and leave college
  • Katherine and George Young were married, and she dropped out of USC after 3 years
  • In 1932, Katherine signed up for flight lessons at the Chinese Aeronautical Association after flying with her cousin who was a pilot
  • She flew solo for the first time after having only 12 ½ hours of experience
  • In 1932 She earned her pilot license and became the first Chinese American woman to pilot a plane legally
  • After getting her license she was added to the Chinese Aeronautical Associations list of aid pilots
  • Katherine soon began stunt flying after earning license and performed at events around the U.S.
  • In 1935, she joined the Ninety Nines club for female pilots
  • In 1936, she joined the American Aviation Association and that same year the Chinese American community raised 2,000 dollars for her so she could buy a 125 horsepower Fleet biplane
  • She than entered a 7 day race from Los Angeles to Cleveland
  • Katherine came in last but she received a lot of publicity for her efforts
  • She later entered a Glendale to San Diego race where she competed against other female pilots
  • Katherine came in fourth this time
  • In 1937, she planned a trip to China to deliver supplies and offer flying lessons to women, but she was denied a transport pilot’s license
  • Chinese American women’s organizations stepped in and raised money for her to buy a large plane that could handle the trip to China
  • The day before her takeoff, Katherine’s cousin took the plane on a test run and was killed when the plane crashed
  • Her cousin’s death and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, worried her father greatly and he begged her to stop flying
  • Katherine did stop flying but still focused on opening a flight school in China
  • In late 1937, the school opened and Katherine stayed in China for five years
  • In 1942, she fled the then Japanese occupied China and moved back to Los Angeles
  • That year she officially retired from flying and focused on raising her two daughters
  • Katherine Cheung died in 2003 at the age of 98 from natural causes

Source: persephone magazine, la times, aviatrix, pinterest


How To Dress Your Kid As A Rad American Woman

Inspired by the book “Rad American Women”, these costumes celebrate America’s activists, authors, aviators, justices, artists, athletes, musicians, and physicians.

Take inspiration from these young ladies and dress up as: Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, Bessie Coleman, Flo-Jo, Isadora Duncan, Kate Bornstein, Patti Smith, Sonia Sotomayor, Dr. Virginia Apgar, and Zora Neale Hurston.



During a period of both racial and gender discrimination, Bessie Coleman Broke down boundaries in 1921 by becoming the world’s first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license. She developed an interest in aviation whilst working as a manicurist in Chicago at the White Sox Barber Shop, where she often heard stories about pilots flying in World War I.

Unfortunately, as a Black woman, Coleman soon learned that no American flight school was willing to train her. She was advised by Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott to study abroad, and as such, she took classes in French and headed overseas to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Though Coleman returned home to become a media sensation, she soon discovered that barnstorming (stunt flying) would be the only way to make a steady income as an aviator. She then proceeded to travel to France, Germany and the Netherlands to expand upon her skills. Due to the combination of her studies, her daredevil mindset, her opportunistic spirit and her background as a Black woman, she quickly gained a strong following as a major attraction at air shows.

Coleman used her platform to encourage other Black individuals to learn how to fly and often took a stand against racism. She refused to do a lecture at a school in Waxahachie, Texas until Black students were allowed to use the same entrance as white students. After she was offered a role in a feature-length film, she walked off the set upon learning that her wardrobe would perpetuate a derogatory image of Black people.

In 1926 - at only 34 years old - Coleman plunged to her death while rehearsing one of her famous stunts. Approximately 10,000 mourners were present at her funeral in Chicago, which was presided over by civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.

Two young women who studied engineering at the University of Illinois want to inspire girls to become scientists by offering dolls based on real people, like Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist Marie Curie.

Janna Eaves and Supriya Hobbs founded the Miss Possible company to offer an alternative to Barbie or American Girl dolls. The dolls also come with an app that lets kids learn more about the person’s biography and field of study.

Hobbs told us that she was inspired by the phrase “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And Hobbs says, she wants girls “to see everything.”

The company got started thanks to $85,000 raised on the crowd-funding website Indiegogo. The first dolls come out in January. Hear our interview with Supriya Hobbs here.

External image

Pioneering African American pilot Bessie Coleman was born on this day in 1892. Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license and specialized in stunt flying and air shows. 

Learn more about Bessie and other groundbreaking “women with wings” in our exhibit on American Aviatrixes.

Image from @losangeleslibrary via California Digital Library.

read bessie! bessie! bessie! an article written by dream hampton honoring 3 awesome black women who happened to be trailblazers and share the same name: bessie coleman, bessie stringfield (pictured above), and bessie head. queens who never needed crowns to rule. #keepitQUEEN.

posted by @traemili.

Pilot Bessie Coleman, 1923

Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was a Texas native who was the first African American woman to earn an aviator’s license.

Gender and racial barriers prevented Coleman from studying aviation in the United States, so she traveled to France, where she obtained an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. To make a living as a pilot, Coleman performed in airshows as a stunt pilot.

Coleman was killed when her plane malfunctioned. Her Jacksonville, Florida funeral was attended by 5,000 mourners.