Bessie Coleman

If you’re driving or taking the Blue Line train to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, you’ll see an exit for Bessie Coleman Drive. If you’re going to International Terminal or returning a rental car, you’ll be on Bessie Coleman Drive. So who was this woman? Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), born in Texas, was the daughter of a day laborer (who was part Cherokee) and a maid. She had twelve siblings and the family lived in poverty. Coleman and her family moved north to Chicago during the Great Migration to seek better opportunities.

As a young woman working as a manicurist, Coleman heard of female pilots and soon set a goal of learning to fly. Her gender and race prohibited her from going to pilot school in the US so she learned French, saved money from two jobs and went to France to learn how to fly. With her international pilot license in hand, Coleman returned and became the first American Black woman to make a public flight in the US.

Coleman became a “barnstorming” pilot doing daredevil tricks and stunts in the air. Crowds across the country were thrilled by her performances and she became a heroine to Black women. Sadly, Coleman was killed when she was testing out a new plane. She was 34 years old when she died.

Why this stop? The Blue Line O’Hare Airport station, of course!

Got a few minutes? Watch this video about Bessie Coleman.
Got 10 minutes? Watch this PBS video.

Women’s L Project Connections
Ida B. Wells Barnett led the funeral service for Bessie Coleman in Chicago where over 10,000 mourners grieved her death.
Mae Jemison carried a photo of Bessie Coleman on her space shuttle mission.