Lessons in Black History – Bessie Coleman and Willa Brown

BESSIE COLEMAN and WILLA BROWN – Two pioneering aviators, the life stories of both Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (above) and Willa Brown (below) define courage and tenacity. Coleman was born to sharecropper parents—the tenth of thirteen children—and dreamed of a better life. She moved to Chicago in 1915, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop, where tales of fighter pilots in World War I inspired her to learn to fly a plane. With no one in the United States willing to teach her, she learned French, and journeyed to Paris in 1920, where she studied aviation at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Eventually, she became the first African-American woman to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation pilot’s license. Willa Brown had been greatly influenced by Bessie Coleman, and began flying in 1934. She became the first African-American woman to get a commercial pilot’s license. Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America and the Coffey School of Aeronautics, both of which helped to train African-American pilots, many of whom would go on to become the 99th Pursuit Squadron of World War II, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

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