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In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first black women to gain an international permit to fly. After learning French, she attended the famous flight school, Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudron in Northern France. No schools in America would train a black person. She was inspired to fly by the stories of Frenchwomen flyers told by her brother John, who had served in France during World War I. Coleman performed acrobatics in air shows around the country and gave lectures inspiring audiences that included many children. She believed that there was freedom in the skies and would not perform in an air show with a segregated audience. On April 30, 1926, she was killed in an airplane piloted by a William Wills as he flew her over the field of the next day’s air show where she was slated as the star.
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 as the tenth of thirteen children. They settled in Waxahachie, Texas, and worked as sharecroppers. Her mother encouraged Bessie’s schooling when she showed an aptitude for math. She eventually moved to Chicago and lived with her brother Walter, a Pullman porter. She became a manicurist and worked in the White Sox barbershop. When she returned from Paris, she also worked as a restaurant manager to save money to purchase an airplane. She was helped in this endeavor by friends who included Edwin Beeman from the chewing gum family and Robert S. Abbott, editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender
Her dream to open a flying school was never realized, but several years after her death, black aviators formed a network of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs. In 1990, a road near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was renamed for her and five years later the U.S. Postal Department issued the Bessie Coleman Stamp. She was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas