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This Week in Illinois History provides a 90-second snapshot of an event significant to Illinois history. Join Host Clint Cargile as he covers big events while also exposing little-known pieces of Illinois history.

This Week in Illinois History: Bessie Coleman departs for Paris (November 20, 1920)

Bessie Coleman 1922
Bessie Coleman in 1922

On November 20, 1920, Bessie Coleman traveled from Chicago, Illinois, to Paris, France to attend flight school. As a Black and Native American woman, she could not earn her pilot license in the United States.

Coleman was born to Texas sharecroppers in 1892, the tenth of 13 children. She attended one year of college before money ran out and she had to return home. At age 23, she moved to Chicago and worked as a manicurist. She heard stories about pilots in World War I and decided she wanted to fly. Robert Abbott, founder and publisher of the Black newspaper the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to get her pilot license in France.

Coleman studied French and departed Chicago for France on November 20, 1920. She learned to fly a biplane and on June 15, 1921, earned her international pilot license. She was the first Black or Native American Woman to earn a pilot license.

She studied with acclaimed pilots and aeroengineers across Europe. “Queen Bess” returned to the United States amid great fanfare. She performed in air shows across the country and newspapers called her “the world’s greatest woman flier.”

Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African American aviators. But on April 30, 1926, while preparing for an airshow in a newly purchased aircraft, she was killed when the plane suddenly crashed after takeoff. Bessie Coleman was 34 years old. Ten thousand mourners attended her funeral in Chicago, including Civil Rights activist Ida. B. Wells.

In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black woman in space when she rode aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor. She carried with her a picture of her inspiration, Bessie Coleman.

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