January 26th, 2018 marked the 126th birthday of the legendary Bessie Coleman, the first licensed African-American pilot. Coleman earned her international pilot’s license on June 15th, 1921 upon attending the Caudron Brother’s aviation school, and later became an important figure in African-American history as she went to great lengths to achieve her goals of becoming an aviator despite the obstacles stacked against her in a racially-segregated America.
Coleman, who was very vocal about the intersections of her identities as an African-American person and as a woman, was a strong advocate for equal rights, which showed through her efforts and motivations to become an aviator.
As she was unable to acquire her pilot’s license in the United States due to issues regarding many American aviation schools’ bias against African-Americans and women at the time, Coleman eventually found herself working toward her piloting license in France in 1920. Taking it upon herself to learn French and use up her entire savings to attend flight school abroad, Coleman learned to fly in seven months. By 1921, she had earned an internationally recognized pilot’s license, awarded to her by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
While Coleman sought out an opportunity to achieve her goals outside of the United States during a time when African-Americans and White Americans could not so much as share a train car or lunch counter, this is not to say that Coleman’s experience of learning to fly in France came without discrimination and hardships of its own.
According to a biographical article on Coleman’s life and career published by PBS, Coleman was the only African-American person in her class at the Caudron Brother’s aviation school, which constituted instances of being taught in unsafe aircrafts with subpar equipment. “The only non-Caucasian student in her class, she was taught in a 27-foot biplane that was known to fail frequently, sometimes in the air,” stated the article.
Despite the challenges she faced at home and abroad, Coleman refused to let those hardships deter her from her aspirations and intense desire to fly.
Coleman went on to coin the phrase, “The air is the only place free from prejudices,” which could have perhaps served as an expression of the importance of African-Americans entering into a literal space where their race and other factors of their identity would not greatly impact their livelihood.
Despite Coleman’s efforts, it seems that there is still a deficit of female pilots. While the number of African-American pilots has increased significantly since the 1920s, more than 90 percent of U.S. pilots are white, and African-American pilots are still facing racial discrimination in the aviation field.
With the knowledge that the aviation industry still has a long way to go before becoming the vision that Bessie Coleman had for it, this makes keeping alive her legacy and that of other trailblazers like herself extremely important. Acknowledging the efforts of individuals like Coleman results in inspiring others who will go on to carry on her work.
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