Coleman was born in Texas in 1892. Her father was Black and Native American, and her mother was probably the daughter of enslaved Black parents. Coleman’s poor family picked cotton to earn money.
Dreaming of a better life, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her older brothers in 1915. Later, her brother John traveled to France. He told Bessie about the female pilots there.
“He kidded her and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” says Russell Lee. He works at the National Air and Space Museum. “She took it as a personal challenge.”
Becoming a pilot wouldn’t be easy. At the time, there were few opportunities for Black people in the U.S.