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Black History Month


No limits could deter first black female pilot

For Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to receive her international pilot’s license, persistence brought her to her dream.

Born Jan. 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Ga., Coleman grew up picking cotton in Waxahachie, Texas. Raised by her mother alone, she and her brothers and sisters had to work in the cotton fields.

But when it was off season, Coleman went to school. She was good in math and got a job working the accounts of a cotton plantation. Coleman saved enough money to go to college.

Coleman enrolled in Langston Industrial College for African-Americans and trained to be a teacher. But then the money ran out, and she moved on to Chicago to be near two of her brothers.

It was just after the end of World War I and everywhere everyone was talking about the great aviators of the war and their amazing planes. Coleman longed to become a pilot.

The first roadblock she ran into was flying schools didn’t admit African-Americans, only whites. Coleman. persisted and word of her determination reached the editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper. He paid for Coleman to go to flying school in France.

Soon Coleman had her pilot’s license, and she became the first black woman to receive her international pilot’s license. She returned to the United States, but there wasn't much work for women pilots. So Coleman tried barnstorming, performing stunts at air shows. She became known as "Brave Bessie."

Many times, she had to fight prejudice. Once at a show in Orlando, Fla., the organizers wouldn't allow African-Americans to see the show. Coleman refused to perform unless this was changed. The organizers gave in.

Her persistence became an inspiration to pilots. Her memory is honored each year on Memorial Day by African-American pilots as they fly over her grave in formation and drop flowers.

— By Lizabeth Gray


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