Flying Firsts in Triumph

Two spirited women—one black, one white—changed aviation history

“I just wanted to be first . . . that’s all,” Harriet Quimby (1875–1912) explained after becoming the first American woman, and the thirty-seventh person in the world, to receive a pilot license in August 1911. Bessie Coleman (1896–1926) didn’t want to be a manicurist or a wife (though she was already both). She wanted to “amount to something.” These two spirited women changed the twentieth-century social order when they became flying firsts in the fledgling world of aviation.

Already a popular theater critic and globe-trotting writer-photographer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Quimby started flying lessons after witnessing the exhilarating 1910 International Aviation Meet at Belmont Park on New York’s Long Island. Immediately on earning her license at thirty-five, she joined the Moisant flying team for exhibition shows in Mexico, becoming the first woman to fly there. After purchasing a Blériot XI monoplane—a distinct design departure from the biplanes of the day—she flew it solo twenty-two miles from Dover, England, to Hardelot, France, on the morning of April 16, 1912, becoming the first woman to fly a plane over the English Channel. She returned in triumph to the United States, eager to pursue and write about her new avocation. But she met with disaster in July, when she and a passenger were thrown to their deaths from her fragile plane over Boston Harbor. 

Twenty-seven-year-old Bessie Coleman, whose father was American Indian, was at a personal crossroads in segregated Chicago when she was challenged about her future by her brother, a World War I veteran who taunted her with stories of French women flyers. She sassed back, “That’s it. . . . You just called it for me!” But black men were not welcome in aviation, let alone black women. Unfazed, Bessie learned French and earned her pilot license in France—the first for an African American woman. She learned aerobatics, performed for thousands of people, and lectured too, all in pursuit of opening an instruction school for African Americans. “We must have aviators,” she said, “if we are to keep up with the times.” But in a scenario eerily similar to Quimby’s fate, she too fell out of her plane, a Curtiss Jenny, while flying over Jacksonville, Florida, in 1926. Following her untimely death, the African American aviation community embraced her name and mission, establishing flying clubs in her name.

—Dorothy S. Cochrane, Curator, General Aviation, National Air and Space Museum

32c Bessie Coleman single

Object Details

April 27, 1995
Bessie Coleman, American, 1896 - 1926
Bessie Coleman was honored with the issuance of a 32-cent commemorative stamp on April 27, 1995, in Chicago, Illinois. The stamp depicts Coleman in the leather helmet and goggles she wore as a 1920's barnstormer.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the world's first licensed female African American pilot. While living with her brothers in Chicago, she dreamed of flying after hearing stories from soldiers returning from World War I. Because of her race and gender, she could not find a school to accept her, so she studied French and with the financial support of the leading black Chicago publisher, Robert Abbot, she got her aviator's license in Paris, France. She returned to the United States in 1921 and performed in countless air shows-selecting only the shows that would also admit blacks as spectators. On April 30, 1926, while practicing for an exhibition, Coleman fell from her plane to her death.
This stamp is part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series. Initiated in 1978, the USPS continues to issue a stamp featuring a notable Black American every February in conjunction with Black History Month and at other times during the year.
The stamps were printed in the combination offset-intaglio process by the Bureau of Engraving of Printing, and issued in panes of fifty.
Postal Bulletin (March, 30, 1995).
United States of America
Contemporary (1990-present)
Planes & Pilots
Black Heritage
Women's Heritage
U.S. Stamps
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Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.
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National Postal Museum
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Postage Stamps
paper; ink (multicolored)/ lithographed
Height x Width: 1 5/8 x 1 1/16 in. (4.1 x 2.7 cm)
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