A new exhibit to honor aviator Bessie Coleman was unveiled at O’Hare International Airport on July 30th. The exhibit is located in Terminal 2. This year marks 100 years Bessie Coleman obtained her international pilot’s license. DuSable Museum of African American History and the Chicago Department of Aviation built the display with some of Coleman’s memorabilia including a copy of her pilot’s license. GiGi Coleman, the great niece of Bessie Coleman was in attendance.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American and first Native American woman to receive an international pilot’s license in 1921. Born in January 26, 1892, Coleman moved to Chicago for better opportunities in 1915 at the age of 23. Coleman was confronted with racism when she was denied aviation training in the United States. Coleman worked as a manicurist for the Chicago White Sox and a second job as a restaurant manager to save money to become a pilot. Robert Sengestacke Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender and Jesse Binga, founder of Binga State Bank supported and motivated Coleman to study abroad in France to become a pilot.
Coleman studied French in Chicago and traveled to Paris. In 1920, Coleman attended Caudron School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. On June 15, 1921, Coleman obtained her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Coleman returned to the United States in September 1921. Coleman made her first appearance at Curtiss Field in Long Island, NY. The airshow honored veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of War World I. The airshow billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and was sponsored by Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender.
Known as “Queen Bess,” Coleman became a barnstorming pilot in Chicago performing aerobatics stunts. Coleman performed at air exhibitions only if the audience was desegregated. Coleman’s dream was to open a flight school for future black aviators. Coleman’s life was cut short when she was killed during an aerial show rehearsal. The plane went into a deep dive, ejecting Coleman from the plane at 2,000 feet. It was discovered during the examination of the aircraft, a wrench had jammed the controls of the airplane. Coleman died April 30, 1926 at the age of 34.
Coleman’s memory is being remembered in Chicago with the annual Bessie Coleman Flyer-Over Tribute at Lincoln Cemetery. A group of airplanes fly over the gravesite of Bessie Coleman and two black female aviation pioneers, Willa Brown and Janet Bragg. In 1990, the main road at O’Hare Airport was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive. In 1995, The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Coleman. In 2006, Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. A Chicago Tribute Marker Distinction is located at 41st Street & King Drive where Coleman and her family once lived.
Casey Grant, one of Delta’s first African-American flight attendants, has published books of stories about Bessie Coleman: Stars in the Sky: Stories of the First African American Flight Attendants, Stars and Beyond: Color Your Way to Black Heroes in the Sky and Stars and Beyond: Stories of Black Heroes in Aviation.
Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelher.
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