First African-American Pilot to be Enshrined in Dayton

First African-American Pilot to be Enshrined in Dayton
Bessie Coleman, who was born in Atlanta, Texas, traveled to France to learn to fly, after being refused admission by every flying school she applied at in the U.S.

Bessie Coleman, who was born in Atlanta, Texas, traveled to France to learn to fly, after being refused admission by every flying school she applied at in the U.S.

In a surprise proclamation made publicly on September 12, the National Aviation Hall of Fame announced that the late aviatrix, Bessie Coleman, will be among its four incoming enshrinees at the 45th Annual Enshrinement Dinner & Ceremony to be held July 15, 2006 in Dayton.

NAHF Executive Director Ron Kaplan made the announcement at a Dayton charity gala held in Coleman’s honor hosted by media mogul Oprah Winfrey and renowned author and poet Maya Angelou. Kaplan, speaking on behalf of the NAHF Board of Nominations, broke the historic news to the audience of over 2,300 attending “Read to Rise: A Tribute to Bessie Coleman,” taking place at the Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton. The event was held to promote youth literacy and as a fundraiser for Dayton’s Wright-Dunbar Business Village, an inner city commercial district.

At the turn of the last century the Wright-Dunbar district, as it is now known, was home to Orville and Wilbur Wright and African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Wright brothers were the first to be enshrined by the NAHF in 1962. Dunbar was a contemporary of the Wrights, who collaborated in publishing many of Dunbar’s works in their neighborhood print shop.

Coleman was the first American of color, male or female, to earn a pilot’s license. The Atlanta, Texas native was born in 1893, and eventually moved to Chicago, where she was living with her brother when her interest in flight inspired her to pursue a pilot’s license. Turned away from several U.S. aviation schools because of her color, she traveled to France where she was able to earn her pilot rating, graduating in June of 1921.

When she returned to America, she was the only black female pilot in the world and the first licensed black pilot in the U.S. Postponing her dream to start a flying school for African Americans, she earned a living performing precision flight demonstrations at air shows and other public expositions. In Florida in 1926, after recovering from her first serious accident, she returned to performing but tragically lost her life while flying in preparation for an air show.

Ironically, within a few years of her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs became a reality. In 1995, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with her image as part of its Black Heritage Commemorative series.

Three more aviation legends will join Coleman for formal enshrinement next July but their names will not be publicly released until Dec. 16, 2005. The “Class of 2006” will be collectively announced at the Wright Brothers Dinner held by Dayton’s Aviation Trail, Inc., on the eve of the 102nd anniversary of powered flight. Upon their enshrinement next year the four will join the roster of 186 air and space pioneers previously so honored by the NAHF.

The NAHF’s annual enshrinement is widely known as “America’s Oscar Night of Aviation,” with former master-of-ceremonies including Jimmy Stewart, Cliff Robertson, Maureen O’Hara, Dennis Quaid and Harrison Ford. Winfrey, who is also an Academy Award-winning actress, and Dr. Angelou have been invited to return to Dayton on July 15, 2006, as ceremony participants.

The NAHF is a congressionally chartered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its 17,000-square-foot Learning & Research Center is located adjacent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio.

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