Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - Bessie Coleman: First African American Aviator

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), the daughter of sharecroppers in rural Texas, spent her childhood picking cotton. In 1915, she moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of African Americans to escape racial terror and find greater job opportunities in the North. After working as a manicurist in a barber shop, she made up her mind to become an aviator. Coleman was rejected from entering every aviation school in the U.S. for being a woman and for being black. Refusing to take no for an answer, she traveled to France to train as a pilot, and in 1921 became the first African American to obtain an international license to fly. When she returned to the U.S., Coleman became a media sensation with her daredevil performances, and was hailed as “Queen Bess” and “the world’s greatest woman flier.” Throughout her brief career, Coleman refused to perform in American airshows where audiences were segregated.

Interviewees: Madeline McCray, playwright, actor, and author of Bessie Coleman: A Dream to Fly; U.S. Air Force Colonel and the first and only black woman to pilot the U-2 plane, Merryl Tengesdal.

Free digital classroom resources about Bessie Coleman are available on PBS LearningMedia.

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Her dream was to become a pilot, but her real ambition was to open up a flying school so that other blacks would be a part of this new industry.

1919 Chicago, Illinois, 27 year old Bessie Coleman worked as a manicurist in a barber shop.

She was inspired by the story of Harriet Quimby, the first woman to earn a pilot's license in the U.S. Then Coleman overheard customers talking about European women who served as combat pilots during World War I.

I thought, that's it, I'm going to be a pilot, and everybody started laughing at me. Girls sit down and grab that nails file.

You ain't flying no plane.

The aviation industry back at that time, it was a white man's world. It was hard enough for white women.

For a black woman it was nearly insane to choose that industry.

I refuse to take no for an answer.

If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.

One of 13 children, Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas and grew up in a small cabin in Waxahachie.

Her parents were African American sharecroppers, her father, part Cherokee.

Bessie was born literally on a dirt floor and picked cotton alongside her mom.

There weren't any opportunities, quite frankly, in that timeframe for a black woman, but she had bigger dreams.

I want to find a bigger life. I want to amount to something.

To be a pilot, you have to be adventurous. There's a fearless factor to it.

I'm the first and only black female to fly the U2 aircraft. We don't have a lot of women in aviation, so our cadre is very small.

Bessie Coleman was able to up the bar in terms of who could fly, despite gender and racial barriers of that time.

In 1915 Coleman joined 'The Great Migration' North to Chicago -- along with millions of other African Americans determined to escape racial violence and find new job opportunities.

The 1896 Supreme court case Plessy vs.

Ferguson had legalized racial segregation, ushering in a new era of racism against African Americans.

1919 was the year of the Red Summer. A race war broke out across the country.

That was the time of 'Birth of a Nation', the most racist film in American history that was based on the book, 'The Clansman'. All across the South, and parts of the North as well, there were lynchings. Harsh, harsh soul crushing times.

After four years of working in Chicago, in a barber shop and a restaurant, Coleman started applying to flight schools throughout the country.

But no one would teach her.

Everyone thought she was crazy. She was A) Black, B) a woman. When she realized that she needed help, she went to Robert Abbott, the owner of the Chicago Defender, pleaded her case to him about why it was important for there to be a Negro woman flying.

He was really impressed by her and stepped in to support her in sponsorship.

After a year of French lessons, Coleman went to France in 1920, to enroll at a prestigious aviation school.

She didn't face the same obstacles in France.

All they cared about was whether or not you had the courage and the willingness to learn how to fly.

You've never lived until you have flown.

The air is the only place free from prejudice.

Like her, I like to push myself to that next level. How far can I take it?

How much better can I be as a pilot?

The U-2 is a challenging aircraft to fly. It's not for the weak at heart.

You have a space suit. We fly typically above 70,000 feet.

You start seeing the curvature of the earth.

You get to see how small the planet really is in comparison to the universe.

Why are we so focused on skin color? There's just so much more out there.

Bessie went on to become the first-the first-not only the first female black pilot, but she was the first to hold an international license to fly.

Coleman returned to America and became an instant sensation as a barnstormer --the latest craze in public entertainment.

The early aviation, you know, it's seat of the pants flying. Like the Wild West.

All of them risked their lives every single time they decided to jump out of a plane, to walk on a wing, to do a figure eight.

These planes were open air.

As she performed around the country, Coleman used her newfound celebrity to take a stand against racism.

Bessie Coleman was an activist.

She refused to perform in airshows where blacks were not allowed to use the front entrance. Jim Crow laws were very broad.

People couldn't sit together, they couldn't come in together.

She wasn't having any of that.

Black should not have to experience the difficulties I have faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.

For accidents may happen, and they would be someone to take my place.

In 1923 Coleman succeeded in buying her own plane. A month later, it was demolished in a crash near Santa Monica, California.

Coleman was pulled unconscious from the wreckage.

She broke several ribs, and her leg. And from the bed, she said, 'you tell the world..' You tell the world I'm coming back.

The fact that I'm alive proves that flying in the air is no more dangerous than riding in an automobile on the ground.

In 1925, Coleman made her come back with a barnstorming tour throughout Texas, including a flight in her hometown of Waxahachie.

Coming home to her family and seeing the pride in their faces and have all these people cheering... that's a success.

In 1926, while preparing for an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman was thrown from the open cockpit of a plane, some 2,000 feet to her death. She was 34.

Her story is one of perseverance, overcoming barriers. Keep wanting.

Push harder. Don't give up.

Coleman's dream of opening a flight school for African American pilots came true in 1929, when the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded by her friend and fellow aviation pioneer, William Powell.

It inspired many outstanding black pilots, including the Tuskegee airmen of World War II.

And year after year, they would fly low and drop flowers onto her grave in her memory.

It's about the spirit of going for your dreams.

When you are focused and determined, there are no limits, and she really proved that to us.

You can be somebody. You can fly high just like me.