The Faces of the African American National Biography
Courtesy of the Austin/Thompson Collection.
The twelfth of thirteen children born to Susan and George Coleman, as a child Bessie displayed an aptitude for mathematics that caused her parents to place her in charge of the family's finances. Moving to Chicago as a young woman, Coleman developed a keen interest in flying after hearing soldiers returning from World War I—among them her brother Johnny—talking about the developing field of aviation. Aware that there were no black aviators and that "the Race needed to be represented along this most important line," she quit her job as a manicurist and devoted herself to becoming a pilot. She eluded American racism by attending flight school in France, became an acclaimed parachutist, barnstormer, lecturer, and the first licensed African American female aviator. Although her career was cut short by an in-flight accident while rehearsing for a performance, Coleman achieved her goal of promoting aviation and encouraging African Americans to make their mark in the field.