It’s been over 100 years since Bessie Coleman took her first public flight in the U.S., and now she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
This month, American Airlines celebrated the 100th anniversary of that flight by Coleman, the first Black woman and the first Native American to receive a pilot’s license, with an all-Black female crew on a flight from Phoenix to Dallas. The flight, the first in the airline’s 96-year history to have an all-Black female crew, from the ground crew up to the cabin (36 women in all), was attended by Coleman’s great-niece Gigi Coleman. She said it was one of the few recognitions that her grand-aunt had received for her achievements in aviation.
“It took all these years for her to even get recognized — and then for this to happen, it was just amazing,” said Gigi Coleman, who said that racism and discrimination played a part in Bessie Coleman’s not being honored during her lifetime.
In hopes of keeping Bessie’s legacy alive, her family is finding ways to keep her name from fading. Gigi Coleman’s mother and grandmother petitioned the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee under the Postmaster General to get Bessie’s face on a postage stamp, a request that was fulfilled in 1995 with the issuing of the Bessie Coleman Black Heritage stamp. In 1969, Gigi’s grandaunt Eloise Coleman Patterson wrote “Bessie Coleman Aviatrix — Pioneer of the Negro People and the Only Race Aviatrix in the World: A Tribute to Bessie Coleman” about the pilot’s life and legacy. Gigi Coleman said it’s now more important than ever to keep telling Bessie’s story alive after the death of her mother, who was Bessie’s niece.
“She was so instrumental,” Coleman said of her mother. “She would do essay contests, use her own money to get Aunt Bessie’s name out there.”
Born in 1892, Bessie Coleman received her international pilot’s license in 1921 in France following her rejection from every aviation school in the U.S. for being a woman and for being Black. After acquiring her license, Coleman lived out her career doing flight shows and standing up for equal rights. While her great-aunt helped open doors for Black women in aviation, Bessie’s achievements weren’t widely recognized at the time, Gigi Coleman said.
“She wasn’t in the history books,” Coleman said. “No one knew about her — and even to this day, people still don’t know about her. But everyone knows about Amelia Earhart.”
Coleman also said her great-aunt “felt that in the sky was the only place that she felt freedom because she couldn’t feel it on the ground,” because of the racism and sexism she faced as a Black woman. Coleman tragically died in 1926 at 34 from an aviation accident.
Gigi’s latest effort to continue her great-aunt’s work is through the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars, a nonprofit organization helping high school students explore opportunities in aviation by providing programming in science, technology and math while also granting scholarships for college. Colman says students learn about the many careers in aviation through the program.
“We try to tell the kids ‘the sky is not the limit,’” she said. “You could do whatever you want —- but they don’t know. It’s just so many opportunities in aviation that they can go into, and they can make very good money and make a living for themselves.”
Bessie Coleman’s family is also following in her footsteps. Gigi said one of her two sons is attending aviation maintenance school with hopes of becoming an aircraft mechanic. And Gigi is working on a book, “What My Mother Told Me About My Great Aunt,” and plans to expand Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars nationally.
“I know we have a long way to go because of so many stereotypes against African Americans and other people of color,” she said. “But it just shows that, like Bessie, with determination, strive and perseverance, you can do whatever you want to in life.”
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