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First Black Woman Aviator Wouldn't Take 'No' For an Answer

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2001 – Bessie Coleman wouldn't be deterred. She spent her life following her dream and eventually died because of it, but she blazed a path that women aviators have followed ever since.

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The U.S. Postal Service honored aviator Bessie Coleman on a 1995 commemorative stamp.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Born in 1893, she was one of 12 children of a dirt-poor Texas cotton-farming family. At a time when African Americans were regularly prevented from voting by literacy tests and denied even a basic education, Coleman managed to graduate from high school and then followed two of her older brothers to Chicago.

Unfortunately, even the urban North offered only limited opportunities to women of color. Coleman worked as a manicurist, but airmen returning from World War I sparked her imagination. After that, there was no stopping her, even when she could find no one in the United States who would teach her to fly.

In November 1920, Coleman headed to France. Seven months later, she became the first African American woman to earn an international pilot's license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

She returned to the United States and became an immediate sensation. "Brave Bessie" traveled the country in a barnstorming tour, wowing crowds and inspiring African American men and women alike.

For the next five years, Coleman used her notoriety to encourage African Americans to take up flying, reminding them nothing was impossible. She even refused to perform at venues that didn't allow blacks.

She repeatedly stated her dream was to save enough money to open her own flying school -- this one solely for African Americans. By all accounts, she was rapidly approaching that goal.

Tragically, Coleman fell to her death April 30, 1926, while a passenger on a reconnaissance flight to find a site for an upcoming air show in Jacksonville, Fla. More than 10,000 mourners grieved at her funeral in Chicago.

"There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such," an editorial in the Dallas Express stated.

In the years since her death, her exploits and achievements haven't been forgotten. In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor, and the Federal Aviation Administration named one of its downtown Washington buildings the Bessie Coleman Conference Center.

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