The Courage to Fly: Bessie Coleman Goes to France

“You’ve Never Lived Until You’ve Flown” —Bessie Coleman

During the early 1900s, several African Americans went to Paris because it was one of the only places they could go to escape some of the restrictions of prejudice. Jim Crow laws made it challenging for African Americans to pursue education and careers in many fields, including aviation. It was not the same in Paris which led to many accomplished American pilots and aviation professionals.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was a woman of remarkable determination and resilience who traveled to France to attend aviation school.

While Harriet Quimby was the first woman in the United States to secure an aviation license in 1912, Coleman was denied entry from all of the schools she applied to, but she did not let that stop her. Despite facing numerous challenges in the United States, she boldly decided to learn French; this was necessary because the aviation school applications had to be completed in French.

Her interest in World War 1 pilots sparked her interest in aviation and in 1920, she was accepted into the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Previously, Coleman was a manicurist and restaurant manager. Despite financial constraints, she pursued her interest in aviation, making history as the first American woman to earn an International pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She was also the first licensed woman aviator of African and Native American descent. Upon returning to the States, she was honored in an all-black, ground-breaking musical called Shuffle Along.

In 1922, she participated in her first air show in Long Island and continued to perform stunt flying until her death in 1926.

Coleman’s eulogy was delivered by activist and journalist Ida B. Wells. In 2006 Bessie Coleman was included in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Note: Paris was a creative sanctuary where many well-known people found inspiration and success. Artists and intellectuals, who either lived or spent a significant amount of time there, included Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and many others.