On this day in history, January 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman, a renowned aviator who was the first African-American woman to become a pilot and to hold an international pilot’s license, was born.
When she turned 18, Coleman took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University). She completed one term before her money ran out, and returned home.
In 1915 she moved to Chicago and worked as a manicurist, listening to stories from pilots who had flown in World War I. Determined to become a pilot, she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender to study aviation abroad. Coleman received financial backing from a banker and the Defender. She eventually traveled to Paris and became the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license and also the first in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license.
Later she traveled to the Netherlands and Germany to get additional training before returning to the United States, where she did stunt flying and was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.” Coleman developed a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot, who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. She died in 1926 after an airplane malfunction caused her aircraft to crash at the age of 34.