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African American Heritage Week: Bessie Coleman

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Let's move to the skies for the next installment of the series, and meet Bessie Coleman, the first African American pilot.

Coleman was born in Texas in 1892, into a large family. Life was difficult for Bessie, as she had to travel a long distance on foot to attend her segregated school, and had to split her time between her work, studies, church, and the harvest. She established herself as an outstanding student, and decided to become a pilot after hearing stories of WWI aviators in 1918. However, at the time, American aviation schools did not accept African American students, let alone a black woman. 

Robert Abbott, the publisher of The Chicago Defender, heard Coleman's plea and arranged for her to study in France. In 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman (and the first Native American, as she was of mixed heritage) to earn a pilot's license. Using her new skills and accepting the guidance of more instructors in Europe, Coleman became a 'barnstormer,' or a trick and stunt pilot in airshows. Despite the criticism she received and the injuries she sustained, "Queen Bess" became massively popular.

However, in 1926, Coleman flew in an aircraft that had shown signs of mechanical failure, and unfortunately the plane fell beneath her. Coleman was thrown from the cockpit at approximately 2,000 feet, having not worn her seatbelt in preparation for a parachute jump, and was killed upon impact. Her short 34 years of life did not carry her long enough to see an aviation school for black pilots, but she was a pioneer in the aviation field: daring in her stunts and outspoken in her activism.

Do you have a story of black heritage to share on Folkspaper? Submit it for the February Contest!*Admin: I am not eligible for this contest.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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