Life in the Box: Bessie Coleman Quarter

Could you fly an airplane if you had to? I’m not sure I could, but maybe with modern automation and good instruction I might imagine saving the day if the pilot needed help. Oh, sure, dream on!

Back in the early days of flight, people who dared to fly planes were heroes—and heroines! We all know about that crazy and enigmatic white gal, Amelia Earhart. Do we also recognize the name, Bessie Coleman? I confess, before she got her face on a quarter (2023) I thought, “She sounds familiar, but I can’t place her.” Now I can place her: Aviatrix!

Think of trying to navigate a little biplane using a baseball-bat-sized stick with your arms, and some wooden pedals with your feet. No satellite navigation or electronic gadgets. Just you, the wind, your muscles, and your smarts.

That was just part of the picture: women and especially women of color were not allowed in flying schools anywhere in the United States. Bessie Coleman, 9th child from a family of Texas sharecroppers (she claimed both African-American and Native American heritage) had to navigate poverty and oppression to get any education past grade school. It is remarkable what she accomplished in her short life.

Her path led her to Chicago, where her brothers lived, and to a sponsorship that helped pay for her to study aviation in France. First, she had to learn the language, which didn’t take her long. She must have been incredibly bright. And notably determined.

She was awarded her International Pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, almost two years before Amelia. But this license wasn’t worth much without a job. Not seeing any routine career paths in America, Bessie returned to Europe and got advanced instruction in “exhibition” style flying: figure eights, nose dives, and other death-defying moves to entertain a crowd.

September 3, 1922, “the world’s greatest woman flyer” gave her first American exhibition in New York, followed by several in Chicago, all honoring the African American veteran airmen of World War I.

Her planes were army surplus. Give that a thought. Look at them—barely more than flying boxes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she died (as a passenger) in a sub-standard plane that crashed in a practice run in Jacksonville, Florida in 1926. But in her 34 years of life, and approximately 5 years of flying airplanes, Bessie had left a legacy. An estimated 10,000 people showed up in Chicago to mourn her death.

A friend, William J. Powell, opened a flying school, the Bessie Coleman Flying Club, in honor of Bessie’s dream of teaching men and women of color.

During her life, she used her celebrity to fight the stereotypes of blacks, females, and Native Americans. She gave plenty of interviews airing her opinions. She refused to perform in any venue that was segregated. She even walked off the movie set of a film intended to tell her life story, because the first scene depicted her in a stereo-typical way. None of that!

Bessie Coleman, whose skill, showmanship, and airplanes put the ROAR in the roaring twenties, left a deep imprint in America and even Europe. You will see the name Bessie Coleman near airports in Chicago; Tampa; Oakland, California; Germany; and France. She has at least one grade school and a library named in her honor, along with many streets. She inspired the first African-American female astronaut, Mae Jemison, and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. 

And, along with her 2023 quarter, her likeness will now be found on a Barbie doll. A Barbie doll of Bessie Coleman. Holy cow, how can you be more famous than that!?


Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site. She’s now showing photos on Smug Mug

American Women Quarters Program

National Women’s History Museum Story about Bessie Coleman

US Air Force Article

Smithsonian Institute Channel, 3 minute video on you tube

American Masters, Unladylike series, 9 minute video  

Bessie Coleman: The First Black Female Pilot Ever! (Unique Coloring) by Daniel J. Middleton 12 minute video

Related Escape Into Life Article about Jovita Idar in the Quarters Program 





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