Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was the first African American female aviator. Born in 1892, in a one room shack in Texas, Bessie was the twelfth of 13 children. She grew up in the segregated south but moved to Chicago at the age of 23 to better her life and find more opportunities. While in Chicago, Bessie heard stories from pilots returning from World War I and became fascinated with aviation. Unfortunately flight schools refused to instruct African Americans and women. However, aviation schools in France did not discriminate. Determined to fly, Bessie learned French and found local benefactors, who helped finance her trip and schooling in France.
On June 15, 1921, Bessie received her pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and returned to the United States. The age of commercial air travel had not yet begun, so Bessie turned to barnstorming: stunt-flying exhibitions at fairs, circuses and other events as a career. During this time she was known as Queen Bess, ruling the skies with her daring performances. She insisted that audiences be integrated and in one instance refused to perform until event officials notified African Americans that they were welcome to attend her performance.
Bessie dreamed of establishing her own aviation school, but died tragically in 1926 when her plane controls jammed during a practice run for an upcoming event in Florida.