Bessie Coleman – Free Barnstorming Pilot

Day 264 of Colourisation Project – January 26

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born on this day, January 26, in 1892, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman broke through the gender and race barriers of America’s deep south, by becoming the world’s first female pilot of African American descent. The year was 1921. Not the best time in history for a woman with high flying aspirations. She was also the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from France’s Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

bessie_coleman Bef & Aft

Photo: Black Wings – Bessie Coleman 1922 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

A native of Texas, she was forced to go to France to earn her pilot’s license.  The prevailing prejudices of the time in U.S. aviation ensured that every flying school she approached refused her admittance on the grounds of race and colour. Undeterred, Coleman learned French and moved to France to achieve her goal. It took her only seven months to realise her dreams and receive her license from the well known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.

Coleman refused to let racism or sexism impede her ambitions. In 1922, she made the first public flight by an African-American woman in America. She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting and was soon earning a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. She dazzled crowds with her stunts and became known as “Queen Bess.”

Coleman believed that the air is the only place where everyone is free and she wanted to share that space with other black people. Unfortunately Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her dream of establishing a school for young black aviators. Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show which sent her plummeting to her death. She was only 34 years old.

Her pioneering spirit and achievements earned in the face of opposition, served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. Lieutenant William J. Powell in his book dedicated to Coleman, Black Wings 1934, wrote,

“Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”

It took some time until Coleman’s wish was fulfilled. It was not until 1939 that black students were permitted to enter civilian flight schools in the United States. And it took a Second World War before black male pilots were accepted into the Airforce. However it was not until 1980, almost 60 years after Coleman earned her pilot’s license that the first black woman could enrol in military pilot training in the United States.

In 1977 a group of African American female pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club and in 2006, Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Every April 30, on the anniversary of her death, African American aviators — men and women — fly in formation over Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Chicago (Blue Island) and drop flowers on Bessie Coleman’s grave.


“The air is the only place free from prejudice.”   –  Bessie Coleman

This entry was posted in African-American Women, Colorization, Colourisation, France, History, Photography, USA, Women and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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