Aviation Academy Remembers First Woman of Color To Earn Pilot’s License

March 21, 2023

Mar. 20—Bessie Coleman, the first African American and Native American to earn her international pilot's license, landed at Max Westheimer Airport on Monday morning to inspire Oklahoma Aviation Academy students to pursue their dreams.

In some ways, it was 1925 all over again.

The famed pilot was portrayed by great niece Gigi Coleman, who launched the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars, a nonprofit designed to promote the legacy of Bessie Coleman by encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering and math.

"My mission is to, like my mother, inspire people to think about aviation as careers to tell Bessie Coleman's story because she's another hidden figure," Gigi Coleman said.

Coleman's mother, Marion Coleman, was the daughter of Georgia Coleman, Bessie's youngest sister. In 1995, Marion Coleman petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to create the Bessie Coleman stamp to honor her aunt, and Gigi Coleman is continuing to preserve her legacy by promoting aviation education.

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892, the tenth child in a family of thirteen. She learned about aviation through childhood reading, finished high school and some teacher's college training, and moved to Chicago.

Denied admission to American aviation schools because of her race and gender, she learned French and went to France. In 1921 she earned an international pilot's license from the highly respected Federation Aeronautique International.

"She received her pilot's license about six months to a year before Amelia Earhart," Gigi Coleman said. "And she was the first African American Native American woman to fly in America."

As a part of its American Women quarter initiative, the U.S. mint printed a quarter to commemorate Bessie's legacy, which was distributed earlier this year, and Coleman served as a consultant for its design. Coleman said the Mint has produced about 491 million Bessie Coleman quarters.

"Decades from now, people are still going to be learning about Bessie's story through these quarters," she said.

Roman Alfaro, a freshman at Norman North, said he was impressed to learn about Bessie's legacy through her family.

"Today's event was very informative, and it was really cool seeing how aviation has aged and how it is come down to such awesome people and how we still have people like Gigi coming around and sharing Bessie's story with us," said Alfaro, who joined the academy hoping to earn his private pilot's license and enter the military.

Alfaro said as an African American/Native American woman, Bessie was turned down many times throughout her career, and he learned that trials bring about opportunities to learn.

"I will take away from her drive to never take 'no' as an answer and to always have each 'no' closer to a 'yes,'" he said.

Jade Ralph, a freshman at Norman High, is studying at the academy. She wants to earn her private and commercial pilot's licenses and eventually become an astronaut.

"What really stood out to me is about how Bessie really had to stride for her dreams, you know?" Ralph said. "Like she had to travel halfway across the world to achieve it."

As a young female student, Jade connected with Coleman's message, as many pilots in the industry are male.

"Aviation is kind of a male-dominated industry, you know what I mean?" she said. "So, it's gonna be a little challenge, but we can push through. That's how I see it."

Coleman was inducted to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006, as well as the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2001. This year, Mattel added a Bessie Coleman Barbie doll as a part of its "Inspiring Women" series.

" Mattel felt that Bessie was an inspiration to young people all over the world and helped especially young girls to follow their dreams," Coleman said.

Terry Adams, director of the aviation academy, said Coleman's presentation was important for students to better understand the history of the industry, as well as the challenges that some have faced and continue to face while pursuing their dreams.

"For me, it was just perseverance. She faced a lot of obstacles in her path to get her international aviation license, becoming the first African American and Native American to achieve that feat," Adams said. "So, I think the message was born about hope. If you want it to happen and you have a dream, keep persevering so you can make it happen."


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