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The Daredevil Aviatrix That History Forgot

Mar 04, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by American Masters — Unladylike2020

Bessie Coleman wanted more out of life. Her parents were sharecroppers in rural Texas, and she had spent her childhood picking cotton and doing laundry for white people. It was 1915. Opportunities were scarce for African Americans—let alone women of color. If Coleman wanted more, she realized, she had to go north. She moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration and took a job at a barbershop. In her free time, Coleman began to read about flying.

She read about Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license. She learned of the European women who served as combat pilots during World War I. Inspired by their stories, Coleman resolved to become an aviator. She applied to every flying school in the United States, but, because of widespread race and gender discrimination, she was rejected from all of them.

Coleman refused to take no for an answer. She found sponsorship from the black-owned newspaper The Chicago Defender, taught herself French, and moved to France. She earned her license from France's lauded Caudron Brother's School of Aviation in just seven months. specializing in stunt flying and parachuting. In 1921, Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot's license.

A new short documentary from PBS’s American Masters series revives the story of the daredevil aviatrix whom history forgot. The film, part of a larger series about pioneering American women called Unladylike2020, illuminates Coleman’s achievements through interviews and colorful animation.

“Like many Americans, the only woman pilot I had ever heard of was Amelia Earhart,” Charlotte Mangin, who produced the film, told me. “I certainly never imagined that a woman of color was able to obtain a pilot’s license in the 1920s, let alone take the country by storm as an aviator.”

What surprised Mangin most about Coleman, however, was the spirit of activism that the pilot brought to her flying shows. “She refused to perform in air shows where African Americans were not allowed to use the front entrance and sit in the stadium with white spectators,” Mangin said. “I can only imagine the courage and determination it took to be an activist in this way, at a time when discrimination and violence against people of color were rampant across America.”

At age 34, Coleman’s life was cut short in a plane crash caused by an engine malfunction. Ida B. Wells spoke at her funeral service. In 1929, Coleman’s dream of opening a flying school for African Americans became a reality when William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles. The school educated and inspired many outstanding black pilots, including the Five Blackbirds and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Today, only 7 percent of all pilots in the U.S. are women; less than 1 percent are black women.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.