On a Flight of Dreams: The Courageous Story of Aviator Bessie Coleman
Updated: Mar 19
Clutching a coin in her hand, young Bessie Coleman hurried out the front door of her home in Waxahachie, Texas. She tightened her fingers around the small coin to feel its reassuring coolness on the hot day. Taking no chances of losing it, she held on to her ticket to dreams, to ideas and to the future.
She approached the place she had longed for as she worked in the cotton fields, giving most of her earnings to help feed her large family. She'd kept this money for her own with the full blessing of her mother.
The Best Things in the World
Which one would she choose? Any of them would be a treasure, but she wanted just the right one. It would be the only new book she'd have for months. The wagon library came only a few times a year, but it brought the joy of all the best things in the world.
The librarian smiled at her as Bessie first greeted the horses who had carried the traveling library to her doorstep. She gave each a gentle pat and then turned to run her fingers over the bindings of their precious cargo.
She selected a book about Harriet Tubman this time and paid her money to "rent" the book. Her younger sisters would enjoy hearing her read that story to them. They'd already shared the Bible together, along with books about Booker T. Washington and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. From their inspiring stories, Bessie knew she could grow up "to be somebody."
The Beginning of Bessie's Story
Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, the sixth of nine surviving children. She entered a place of hard work, extreme poverty and fear: lynchings and killings of African-Americans were a terrible part of her world.
But her mother, a woman of deep Christian faith and love for her family, wanted the best for her children and always encouraged them. In words and prayers, she let Bessie know her daughter could achieve anything she dreamed of wanting to do.
Bessie took this courage along with her as she walked the eight miles to and from school, feeling the hard earth under her bare feet. She couldn't remember a time when she didn't love holding a book in her hands. Bessie found she also loved numbers and excelled in mathematics.
She kept the learning close to her heart and thought about it on long days when school closed and her back and arms ached from picking cotton and helping with her mother's laundry business.
Taking on the World
After graduating from high school, Bessie's dreams "to be somebody" took her to college. She immersed herself in the classes, but soon this path ended when she ran out of money to continue.
Never giving up, Bessie headed for Chicago to live with her older brother, Walter, who had found work there as a Pullman porter. While making a living as a manicurist, Bessie continued to be an avid reader. She kept up with the daily news, especially admiring a newspaper called the Chicago Defender.
As war broke out, and her brothers fought in World War I, she took a personal interest in the breaking news of each day. During this time, she saw more and more coverage about airplanes and their use in the war.
A New Plan Emerges
An idea struck her. What if she could become a pilot herself? The dream of soaring free in the sky took hold.
She sent applications to almost every aviation school in the United States, but they all rebuffed her. A woman, and one of mixed African-American and Native-American heritage, learning how to fly? The men in charge sent back rejections that would have killed the dreams of a less tenacious person.
She learned that France would accept flight students regardless of gender or race. Again, Bessie saved her money to gain a dream. She kept a small wooden airplane, crafted by a little boy, in the window of the barbershop where she worked. Each time she looked at it, the plane reminded her not to give up on her dream.
The successful publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert S. Abbott, heard about her plans and realized the value of what an achievement like this would mean in his community. He encouraged Bessie to learn French, and she took classes at a language school in Chicago. Robert Abbott's financial help, along with her own savings, now sent Bessie on the next step of her journey. Accepted at a prestigious French aviation school, she sailed to France on the S.S. Imperator.
Just as she excelled at her studies in Texas, she impressed the instructors there with her grasp of complicated flight maneuvers, including tail spins, banking and looping the loop. In just seven months, she earned her international pilot's license on June 15, 1921, two years before Amelia Earhart received her own international license.
Bessie later went back for advanced training in France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland to learn even more complicated flying skills. Retuning home, Bessie embarked on a new dream. She wanted others have the same opportunity, but in the United States. She decided to open aviation schools of her own that would accept women and African-Americans.
Bessie realized the best way to earn the needed funds quickly would involve exhibition flying. Crowds were eager to see pilots and airplanes perform daring stunts, but in the rickety planes, it would be dangerous. She took the risk, knowing it would bring her closer to her dearest goal.
In the next five years, as she performed in air shows around the country, Bessie became increasingly popular. She refused to appear at a show unless the crowd was integrated and all were allowed to enter through the same gate.
During this time, she spoke at many African-American schools and churches to encourage others to pursue their dreams. She held on to her faith and her belief that she could make a difference in the world.
The End and Another Beginning
Soon after she had earned the money to buy her own plane, she traveled to Jacksonville, Florida for an air show. Bessie and her mechanic, William D. Wills, went up to scout the area in preparation for the show the next day. William flew the plane while Bessie inspected the surroundings. Something went terribly wrong, and William lost control of the plane.
Bessie was thrown from her seat and died instantly when she plummeted to the ground. She was thirty-four years old.
The plane crashed, also killing William Wills. Tragically, it was discovered that a loose wrench had caught in the control gears, making the plane impossible to control.
Thousands of mourners honored Bessie Coleman before she was laid to rest in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.
There Shall Be No Regrets
Bessie once said, "If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets."
Her dream of opening a flight school became a reality when Lieutenant William J. Powell opened the first one in her name: The Bessie Coleman Aero Club.
He wrote in his book Black Wings, "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."
Bessie Coleman's story inspired the next generation of pilots, including the Tuskegee Airmen. A group of elite pilots during World War II, they were the first African-Americans to become military pilots in the United States Armed Forces.
The girl who grew up loving to read, excelling in school and working hard for a dream leaves a legacy that lives on today in all those she has inspired. Every year, on her birthday, pilots fly over her gravesite in a salute to the young woman who “refused to take no for an answer.”
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Celebrate the life story of another remarkable woman: read the inspiring story of trailblazing Native American doctor Susan La Flesche Picotte here.