Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She defied all odds to become the first female pilot of African American descent and was also the first woman of Native American descent to hold a pilot license and an international pilot license.
In 1916 at the age of 23, Bessie moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. She took a second job at a chilli parlour to procure money faster to become a pilot herself.
American flight schools admitted neither women nor blacks, and no black U.S. aviator would train her. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender and took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago before travelling to Paris in 1920 to earn her pilot license. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."
On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license, and the first person of African American and Native American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, she spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, she sailed for New York becoming a media sensation and stunt pilot.
She died aged 36 when, as a passenger of a plane flown by her mechanic and publicity agent William D. Wills crashed. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.