Early Illinois Women

Bessie Coleman (1896-1926)

Bessie Coleman was born in 1896 in Texas, the daughter of sharecroppers. About 1916, her family moved to Chicago. Her family came during the "Great Migration" of African Americans moving from the South to the North. The migration was primarily the result of economic opportunities in the industrial cities in the North. Those who moved North moved from a primarily rural, agricultural environment to an urban one.

Bessie interest in aviation was sparked during World War I. However, she was denied entry into flight schools in the U. S. because she was an African American and because she was a woman. Two of Chicago's African American businessmen, Robert Abbott (editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper) and Jesse Binga (a banker and philanthropist), encouraged Bessie and financed her aviation schooling in France. In 1921, Bessie became the first American woman to earn an international pilot's license.

During the 1920s, Bessie was a barnstormer, parachutist and stunt flyer. She earned international fame. She made appearances throughout the United States lecturing about opportunities in aviation for African Americans and fighting segregation laws.

Bessie died in 1926, at age of thirty, when she was thrown from her plane while performing aerial stunts in Florida. She is buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.


  1. Rich, Doris L. (1993) Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
  2. Freydberg, Elizabeth A. H. (1994) Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird. Garland Publishing, New York

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