Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892. Her parents sharecroppers and she one of 13 children, much of her early childhood was spent caring for her younger siblings and picking cotton.

After completing the eight grade, Bessie became a laundress in an attempt to save enough money for high school and college. She attended the preparatory school of the Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1910, but had to return to Texas after one semester when her money ran out. After five more years as a laundress, in 1915 she moved to Chicago to live with one of her brothers. She enrolled in a beauty school there and became a certified manicurist.

Bessie dreamed of adventure and challenge, and while in Chicago decided she was going to become an aviator. Unable to find any aviation school in the U.S. that would accept her (both her race and her gender were working against her), on the advice of a friend she learned French, worked hard and saved her money, and in 1920 sailed for France to attend aviation school. After attending the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy, in 1921 she was the first black woman to receive a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

Later that year she returned to the U.S., but was unable to find anyone who would give her the advanced training she needed to become a barnstormer stunt pilot. She then returned to Europe in 1922, receiving the advanced training she desired in Germany, Holland and France. Bessie then returned to the U.S., and on September 3, 1922 appeared in her first American air show at an airstrip near New York City. After this highly successful debut, she successfully toured the country, performing amazing daredevil maneuvers wherever she went.

She also spent extensive time lecturing and encouraging young, black Americans to pursue careers in aviation. One of her life-long dreams was to own and operate her own aviation school for African Americans, and she struggled for many years to raise the necessary money to buy her own plane and see this dream to fruition. Finally, with the help of a friend, in 1926 she was able to make the final down payment on an old World War I surplus plane.

Regrettably, on April 30 of that year, as she was making a test flight of her aircraft before a scheduled flying exhibition in Jacksonville, Florida, Jenny (her plane) unexpectedly malfunctioned. Bessie was thrown from the plane and fell to her death. In the years since her death Bessie has continually been honored for her pioneering achievements both as an aviatrix and a civil rights advocate, including yearly flower drops over her grave in Chicago, a 1990 renaming of a road at Chicago's O'Hare Airport to "Bessie Coleman Drive", and a 1992 issuance of a U.S. Postal service stamp commemorating her extraordinary life and accomplishments.

Kate Campbell Stevenson presents: Women: Back to the Future
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