Bessie Coleman Google Doodle
A Google Doodle on the 125th birthday of African-American pilot Bessie Coleman, Jan. 26, 2017. Google

In the history of flight pioneers, schoolchildren learn about the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But Thursday’s Google Doodle reminded the world of Bessie Coleman, a woman whose name may not be as well-known, but who is no less seminal in the history of aviation or civil rights.

A black woman who was born only a few decades after slavery was abolished, she made history as the first African-American woman to become a pilot. She was born in Texas in 1892, one of 13 children with sharecropper parents. Her mother was part Cherokee, and her father was black.

The year after Coleman was born, a black man in a nearby town was tortured and burned to death. The incident was horrific, but it was not unusual for the time. Coleman grew up in an era of segregation, when racists were still angry about the outcome of the Civil War and retaliated with hate crimes, lynchings and voter intimidation.

And it wasn’t exactly a great time for women’s independence either -- women only got the right to vote when Coleman was 28 years old.

Given the double strike of being a woman and a woman of color, her accomplishments were particularly impressive. After hearing stories from pilots returning from the first World War, she set her sights on flying. At 23, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers, but flight schools in the U.S. did not admit women or people of color. She was undeterred. After she received financial backing from African American banker Jesse Binga, she moved to Paris.

In France, she earned her pilot’s license within one year.

When she returned to the U.S., Coleman made a name for herself as a stunt pilot. Known as Queen Bess, she wowed audiences with her tricks and, sometimes, parachute jumping. She also spoke of establishing an aviation school for aspiring black pilots.

But that dream never came to fruition. Coleman’s life was cut short in Florida in 1926, when she was only 34 years old. As she was preparing for an airshow, a wrench got stuck in the airplane controls when she was 3,500 feet in the air. The plane crashed, and Coleman did not survive.

But Coleman’s legacy lives on. Starting in 1931 and lasting several years after, black pilots from Chicago would fly over her grave every year. And in 2006, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

“I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation,” Coleman said. “The air is the only place free from prejudices.”