Florida Women Who Made History: Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman

Bessie Coleman. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Bessie Coleman’s extraordinary life story is a testament to the power of resilience, courage and unyielding determination. As the first African American and (self-identified) Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license, Coleman shattered racial and gender barriers in the early 20th century, emerging not only as a pioneering aviator but also as a symbol of possibility for countless individuals facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Born into a world where racial and gender discrimination were rampant, Bessie Coleman’s aspiration to fly was met with skepticism and dismissal. Faced with the refusal of American flight schools to admit her due to her race and gender, Coleman’s resolve only strengthened. Her quest led her across the Atlantic to France, where she earned her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 1921. 

Coleman’s achievement was not just a personal victory but a landmark moment in the history of aviation and civil rights, challenging prevailing notions of race and gender capabilities. Upon returning to the United States, Coleman became a sensation; her air shows and public speaking engagements drew large, diverse crowds that gathered to watch her flamboyant stunts and daredevil demonstrations.

Coleman and her plane. Photo: Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection, UCLA Library Digital Collections

Coleman lived primarily in Chicago, but visited Florida often, and even opened a beauty parlor in Orlando for a while. In fact, she died tragically in Jacksonville, after attempting to fly a Curtiss JN-4 that had not been well-maintained.

Bessie Coleman’s legacy extends far beyond her aerial feats. Her life is a profound narrative of overcoming adversity and breaking the glass ceiling in a field that had never before seen someone like her. Her story is a powerful reminder of what can be achieved with passion, perseverance and the courage to dream big. “Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote William J. Powell in his book Black Wings,” we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”

As we honor the women who have made history in Florida and across the nation, we should remember Bessie Coleman not just as a pioneering aviator, but as a symbol of what it means to fly beyond boundaries.

Coleman’s aviation license. Photo: Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – Smithsonian Nationalair and Space Museum

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