This Day in Black History: June 15, 1921

Bessie Coleman becomes the first Black woman to earn a pilot's license.

Posted: 06/15/2012 07:00 AM EDT
Bessie Smith

War can inspire many things in many people — bravery, fear and every emotion in between. Hearing about French women who flew planes during World War I inspired 29-year-old Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, a manicurist living and working in Chicago, to earn a pilot's license. It was a grand ambition for the daughter of sharecroppers who'd been forced to drop out of college after one semester because she couldn't afford her school fees. Being female and African-American and therefore prohibited from attending flying school in the United States didn't stop her either. Pas de problem, she said, after learning French at night, that is, and moving to France, where she attended Caudron Brother's School of Aviation.

 

On June 15, 1921, she earned the first license issued to a Black woman from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Upon her return to the U.S., Coleman, who never achieved her goal of opening an aviation school for African-Americans, specialized in stunt flying. "Brave Bessie," as she became known, sadly lost her life on April 30, 1926, while rehearsing for an aerial show.

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