First Black and Native American woman to receive international pilot’s license has legacy flying high

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CHICAGO — 100 years ago Tuesday, Bessie Coleman received an international pilot’s license. She was the first Black woman and Native American woman to achieve the feat.

“She felt that being in the sky, that was the only place she really felt freedom,” said her great-niece Gigi Coleman Brooms.

Bessie Coleman grew up in Texas and settled in Chicago. She followed two of her brothers to the city who served World War I. At the time, she was working as a manicurist and her brothers told her about women in France who were flying planes.

“When she heard that, that was all she thought about, to be an aviatrix,” said great-niece Gigi Coleman Brooms. “She applied for various aviation schools here in Chicago and around the U.S., but no one would accept her because she was African American and she was a woman — and so she decided to go to France.”

Coleman took French lessons and with encouragement and financial support from Black business leaders like the Chicago Defender’s publisher Robert S. Abbott, she pursued her dreams.

On June 15, 1921, Coleman received her international pilot’s license. She had big plans for her future.

“She decided she wanted to open up an aviation school. She wanted to teach her people how to fly airplanes. She didn’t want people to have to go through what she went through.”

Coleman wowed audiences with stunt flying.

But in April 1926, she was on a test flight with a mechanic in Florida and a loose wrench jammed the controls.

She fell from the plane and died at 34 years old.

Coleman Brooms tells her great-aunt’s story in a one-woman show and encourages Chicago students to pursue careers in aviation through the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars Program.

Coleman never got to open her school, but she opened a door for others to follow.

“Bessie Coleman’s motto was don’t take no for an answer. She was persistent. She knew what she wanted to do and she persisted and persevered,” said Ken Rapier, the president of the Chicago Dodo chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. 

Over the weekend, the group organized an event at Bult Field Airport in Monee celebrating Coleman’s achievements.

Read more Chicago news headlines here.

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