Barnstorm Through Barriers!

Feb 1, 2021

Unable to secure flight training in the United States, Bessie Coleman went to France. She received the first pilot's license issued to an African American woman from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1921.

Smithsonian Institute | by: Gabrielle Barone, Digital Experiences intern

While Bessie Coleman never realized her dream of opening a flight school for African American pilots, her legacy as the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license has impacted and inspired flight students for decades.

In a time before women were supposed to fly airplanes, before Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, Coleman was flying loops through multiple glass ceilings. She was born in Texas in 1892 and was one of 13 children born to parents who were sharecroppers.

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You can see profiles of Bessie and other aviation pioneers on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
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As an African American woman (in a time more than 20 years before the all-male Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies during World War II), getting a pilot’s license in the United States proved impossible. So, 24-year-old Coleman left her job as a manicurist in Chicago to get her flying certification in France.

Coleman received her flying license on June 15, 1921—making headlines as the first African American female to earn a pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

In 1921, Coleman returned to Chicago and got a job as a barnstorming pilot, performing stunts at aviation shows. “Barnstorming” was a popular style of flying throughout the 1920s. Barnstormers flew figure eights and loops in the air, daringly turning their airplanes upside down, even letting people walk onto the wings of their airplanes while in flight. In an era of intense racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws, Coleman would only perform in exhibition shows if the crowds were desegregated.

Coleman’s goal was to save enough money from her job in order to open a flight school for African American students.  In order to achieve this, she opened a beauty parlor to try to save additional money.

In 1923, Coleman’s aircraft crashed in Santa Monica during an exhibition, and she sustained serious injuries. She recovered, but it was an unfortunate foreshadowing of things to come.

Before she could open her flight school, Coleman died in an airplane crash on April 30, 1926. During practice for a May Day celebration, Coleman’s publicity agent and mechanic, William Will, was piloting their biplane, which flipped over and nose-dived. Coleman died after she was thrown from the aircraft.

Though Coleman never saw the desegregation of American society or the formation of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for women in aviation founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929, she opened up the skies for future women to pursue their dreams.

A U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1995 in Coleman’s honor, and in Chicago on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over her grave and leave flowers. Coleman has a place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, alongside pilots like Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. And, in a fitting tribute to Coleman’s dream, pilot William Powell began the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929, to promote aviation for African American men and women.

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