A native Texan, Bessie Coleman escaped poverty and discrimination to soar to new heights as the first female aviator of African American and Native American descent. That’s why today — her 125th birthday — she takes the illustrative honor as Google’s homepage doodle.
Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas on Jan. 26, 1892. The 12th of 13 children, she grew up and attended school in a Waxahachie neighborhood a few blocks from Freedman Memorial Plaza, where a historical marker in her name stands. Visitors to Ellis County Museum can explore an exhibit about Coleman’s youth in Waxahachie, her brief stint at an Oklahoma college and her prosperous flight career in her adult life.
With little opportunity and abundant hardship for African Americans in the South, Coleman at 23 moved to Chicago, where she first discovered her desire to become a pilot. She was inspired by soldiers returning from World War I “with wild tales of flying exploits,” and motivated by her brother, “who taunted her with claims that French women were superior to African-American women because they could fly,” according to PBS.
In the early 20th century, there were no schools teaching black women to fly. So, Coleman learned French, gathered her savings, and with the help of Robert Abbott, one of the first black millionaires and another entrepreneur, she moved to France in November of 1920. There she studied aviation and earned her international pilot’s license in June of 1921.
She came back to the U.S. as the first black woman pilot, fondly known as “Queen Bess” and "Brave Bessie," and performed for integrated audiences in air shows and exhibitions across the country. Her first show was on Sept. 3, 1922, in Garden City, Long Island, and she continued performing until her death, according to PBS.
She gained massive popularity and used her position to encourage other African Americans to fly. She also made a point of refusing to perform at locations that wouldn't admit members of her race.
Coleman died the same way she lived most of her life — in flight — on April 30, 1926 before an air show in Jacksonville, Fla. Her Chicago funeral was attended by about 10,000 mourners including prominent African Americans at the time, including civil rights leader Ida B. Wells, according to PBS. An editorial in the Dallas Express stated, "There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such."
Since her death, Coleman has been memorialized as the namesake for Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill, on the face of a U.S. Postal Service stamp first issued in 1995 and in countless hearts and minds of those who have chosen to pursue aviation with her legacy as their model.
She was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.
And that’s why she’s the first thing you see on Google today.