Texas Women's History Month: The First Black Female Pilot

Mar 31, 2017

Coleman worked to increase the number of African-American pilots during her career as an aviator.

When Bessie Coleman wanted to become a pilot, no flying school would admit her because she was black and a woman. Undeterred, Coleman—who was born in Atlanta, Texas, and grew up in a poor sharecropper family in Waxahachie—obtained a sponsor and went to France for training. In 1921, she became the first black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. She returned to the U.S. and flew in a series of airshows, performing stunts whenever she could borrow an airplane. Her dream was to earn enough money to buy her own plane and to establish a flying school for African-Americans. Delighting audiences across the country with her acrobatic flying, she became known as "Queen Bess." At an airshow in Waxahachie, she refused to fly when she found out black patrons were expected to enter the fairgrounds through a separate gate from the white audience. Since she was the prime attraction, the event’s promoters gave in to her demands and the show went on.

In April 1926, as Coleman was preparing to fly in an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida, she fell to her death from the plane’s open cockpit. Only 34 years old at the time, she was celebrated as a trailblazer for African-Americans and women, and her story continues to inspire young people of all races.

This month, KUT is partnering with the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation to celebrate Women's History Month. Every day, we'll bring you a short feature spotlighting a historic woman, movement, or group of women in Texas.