Historic Change: The Soaring Life of Pilot Bessie Coleman

By Amanda Crastz-Flores
March 9, 2023

five people standing in a line with two of them holding a shadow box frame
The Bessie Coleman quarter launch event in Chicago.

During this year’s Black History Month, the U.S. Mint celebrated quarter launch events in Chicago, Illinois and Jacksonville, Florida to honor the accomplishments and contributions of Bessie Coleman. Bessie was a pilot, advocate, and pioneer who flew to great heights as the first African American and first Native American woman licensed pilot in the United States. She was also the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, two years before Amelia Earhart. Her determination and strong continue to inspire many people to date.

On February 18, in Chicago, the Mint, the National Women’s History Museum, and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum celebrated the release of the Bessie Coleman quarter in a community event at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. For Perri Irmer, the president and CEO of the DuSable Museum, it was an honor and a pleasure to welcome the Coleman family, the partner organizations, and the community into the museum. She thanked the Mint, the Smithsonian, and NWHM for their contributions to celebrate Bessie, and stated, “We have wonderful things for you today. It is what we are calling ‘Coming to Africa’ day here at the Museum, which is part of our Black History Month celebration this year. It is very exciting to see all of you here today.”

Michele Thompson, American Women Quarters™ Program lead, and Boneza Hanchock, design manager of the Bessie Coleman quarter, presented a shadow box with two Bessie Coleman quarters to representatives of the DuSable Museum and the Federal Aviation Administration, along with Gigi Coleman, great niece of Bessie. In different galleries at the museum, youth-focused activities took place and coin boards inserted with Bessie Coleman quarters were given out.

On February 23, in Jacksonville, the Mint and Gigi Coleman participated in a Black History Month celebration at KIPP Bessie Coleman Academy. Jacksonville is the place where Bessie Coleman tragically died on April 30, 1926 while a passenger in a practice flight. The school students and staff learned about the work of the U.S. Mint, the coin design process, and shared with the Mint and Gigi Coleman what they aspire to become when older. Gigi showed the attendees a Bessie Coleman reenactment performance. The KIPP Bessie Coleman Academy recognized Gigi with the Bessie Coleman award.

“My family commends the United States Mint for honoring aunt Bessie in such overwhelming tribute. We hope more people will discover her story and be inspired by her courage,” said Gigi Coleman, great niece of Bessie Coleman.

Bessie Coleman’s flying career continues to inspire many young African Americans to pursue the field of aviation. Her legacy continues through the establishment of aviation clubs and tributes, including the 1995 U.S. postal stamp issued in her honor, and now, as an honoree in our nation’s circulating coinage for decades to come.

After being refused admission into every U.S. flying school she approached, Coleman learned French and saved enough money to attend flight school in France where she was the only woman and the only Black student in her class. After earning her international pilot’s license, Coleman returned to the U.S. and performed in numerous airshows. She was known for “loop-the-loops” and making a figure 8. Her 1922 public flight was the first performed by an African American woman. Coleman made a point of refusing to speak or perform anywhere that discriminated against African Americans.

During the Bessie Coleman quarter events, over 1,300 individuals received an American Women Quarters coin board to support the mission of raising awareness about the accomplishments of amazing women like Bessie Coleman in our national coinage.

The Bessie Coleman quarter is the sixth coin in the American Women Quarters™ Program.

Check out photos from the Bessie Coleman quarter events on the Mint’s Flickr.

Bessie Coleman doll, books, and photos on a table with a tablecloth printed with an image of Bessie Coleman and her plane
Bessie Coleman artifacts.


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