“You have never lived until you have flown,” once said Bessie Coleman, credited as the first African American aviator. “The air is the only place free from prejudice.”
Coleman, affectionately dubbed “Queen Bess” and “the world’s greatest woman flier,” is the focus of a new animated short film, presented as part of the American Masters series “Unladylike2020.” The program highlights the stories of 26 women who broke down gender stereotypes at the turn of the 20th century. Released each week through Aug. 26, the films pay homage to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, joining a host of exhibitions and installations planned throughout New York City. Other women celebrated in the line-up include Grace Abbott, Lillian Gilbreth, Maggie Lena Walker and more.
Born in 1982 to sharecroppers living in Texas, Coleman opened up the sky for a generation of Black women when she traveled to France in 1920 to become a pilot. The road to her spot in history was not easy, nor was it direct. Before her training in France, Coleman was rejected from flight schools in the United States on account of her gender and race. Her perseverance and passion for aviation caught the eye of the Chicago Defender owner Robert Abbott, who offered Coleman a sponsorship that made it possible for her to attend the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France.
In 1921, after completing her course work abroad, Coleman earned the distinction as the first African American to obtain an international license to fly. When she returned to the United States, her reputation as an accomplished flier followed her into her career as a barnstormer.
In the New York Times, an article titled “Chicago Colored Girl is Made Aviatrix by French” chronicles her arrival, reading: “Miss Coleman, who is having a special Nieuport scout plane built for her in France, said upon her arrival here that she intended to make flights in this country as an inspiration for people of the colored race to take up aviation.”
To this end, Coleman dreamed of founding a school for Black pilots to learn how to fly. Her goal was finally realized in 1929, a few years after the stunt pilot’s untimely death, when her friend William J. Powell opened the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in her honor.
Watch the full documentary on Coleman’s life in the video above and stay tuned as more profiles become available.