Long before Beyoncé reminded us how to make “Lemonade” from life’s lemons, we learned how to defy all odds from the legacy of Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. In 1921, Bessie became the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license as well as the first person of African American and Native American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Though it’s been 91 years since her tragic death on April 30, 1926, aviation professionals and aficionados continue to be inspired by Bessie Coleman’s daring and determination. In memory of this great pioneer, let’s examine the top 5 lessons from Bessie’s legacy.
Bloom where you’re planted – even when the soil appears unpromising.
Born January 26, 1892, Bessie was the 10th of 13 children, born to parents who were sharecroppers in Texas. She spent her childhood helping her parents harvest cotton and walking four miles to her segregated school where she completed all eight grades. With encouragement from her mom, she maintained her focus on education even after her father left the family to search for better financial opportunities. As an avid reader and outstanding math student, she excelled at school in spite of limited educational resources. Few people would have predicted that Bessie would achieve national acclaim and admiration based on her humble beginnings, growing up poor in the racially-divided South. However, as an aviatrix and visionary, she soared beyond the barriers of that background. Her legacy reveals that where you start doesn’t ultimately determine where you finish.
Let your desires and dreams carry you toward your destiny.
Bessie’s everlasting desire to “amount to something” spurred her to pursue her dreams. In her early twenties, she worked as a manicurist in a Chicago barber shop where she listened to pilots share their experiences about flying during World War I. Hearing these experiences illuminated her destiny. Bessie realized: “The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
Bessie Coleman primarily flew Curtiss JN4D planes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. During her trips, she often gave lectures to schools and churches to encourage young black men and women to enter aviation.
To achieve this dream, she would in fact have to face grave danger and risk her life. During her training for her international license, she witnessed a fellow student die in a plane crash. Although the accident had an emotional impact on her, it didn’t deter her from obtaining her license. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923. After the crash, she told a reporter, “Tell the world I’m coming back.” Bessie left the hospital three months later and returned to flying.
In 1926, Bessie died while testing her aircraft before an aerial show in Jacksonville, Florida. Tragedy prevented her from achieving her ultimate dream of establishing a school for young Black aviators, yet Bessie became a meaningful part of history because she diligently pursued her dreams, and fulfilled many of them, until she drew her last breath. Bessie’s legacy teaches us that when we desire to be a part of something greater and reach for our dreams, we gain the courage to move forward into our destiny – and often transform history along the way.
Recognize the power of persistence.
With every challenge she experienced, Bessie found a way to navigate around it. When she didn’t have the money, she worked two jobs – as a manicurist and manager of a chili parlor – and saved to pay for aviation school. Because of her race and gender, she received countless rejections from U.S. flight schools, so Bessie obtained financial backing from prominent African American businessmen so she could study in France. Her persistence paid off because she became a media sensation when she came back to the United States as the first Black and Native American aviatrix. Once Bessie wanted to earn money as a stunt pilot, she decided she needed more advanced instruction, so she returned to France to further her aviation education. Again, her persistence was rewarded because she excelled in the highly competitive field of exhibition flying, attracting large crowds willing to pay and eager to witness her daredevil maneuvers. Due to her popularity, Bessie also was in demand for important events, newspaper interviews and speaking engagements, which generated more publicity and earnings for her. From her legacy, we see that persistence helps us find windows of opportunity when ignorance closes a few doors.
Bessie Coleman in uniform
Define yourself, and disregard the haters.
Bessie earned such nicknames as “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess” due to her complex stunts and stardom. Yet, despite her fame among people of all races, she was criticized as having an opportunistic nature and flamboyant style. Such criticism had little effect on Bessie’s focus and character. She understood the importance of money and publicity in achieving her goals, but she didn’t compromise her values. When she performed, she insisted that the crowds were desegregated. Also, at one point, Bessie had the opportunity to star in a film titled “Shadow and Sunshine,” but she walked off the set when she realized in the first scene that the movie would perpetuate stereotypes of Black people as poor and downtrodden. Based on Bessie’s legacy, we learn that when we define ourselves, we don’t allow others to dictate our opportunities or our boundaries.
In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp to honor Bessie Coleman. Her commemorative stamp is the 18th in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Series.
Maximize the moment because your influence extends beyond your lifetime.
Bessie lived a short life, dying at age 34, and her career as a pilot spanned only 5 years. But her influence has been far-reaching for decades: aero clubs were established nationwide, buildings and streets were named after her, numerous books about her life were written for audiences of every age, scholarships in her name have been awarded to students of aviation, and dolls and toys have been designed bearing her likeness. In her honor, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp to commemorate her in 1995, and Google posted a Doodle in 2017 to celebrate her birthday.
In 2017, Google honored Bessie Coleman with this Doodle on what would have been her 125th birthday.
On an individual level, Bessie influenced some of our nation’s most prominent African Americans in aviation and aerospace. Lieutenant William J. Powell, who dedicated his life to promoting black aviation, founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929 as well as the Bessie Coleman Flying School and Bessie Coleman Aero, the first African American-owned airplane manufacturer. In his book “Black Wings,” he included a photo of Bessie and dedicated that publication to her. According to various sources, Mae Jemison – the first African American female astronaut in space – carried a picture of Bessie Coleman on her first mission in 1992. Even in the 21st century, Bessie remains a role model, particularly for girls who aspire to have careers in aviation or aerospace. Perhaps the greatest lesson of her legacy is what’s important is not how many years we spend on this Earth but how we maximize the time we’re given.
Undeniably, Bessie Coleman left a blueprint for how to triumph over adversity and command respect in competitive fields. Based on her courage and commitment, she’s earned another nickname – “Beloved Bessie” – because her legacy still stirs the hearts and imaginations of people from various backgrounds and generations.