US Coins

Events in Chicago and D.C. celebrate Bessie Coleman

Pictured at age 23, Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license. Coleman is immortalized on the reverse of the 2023 American Women, Bessie Coleman quarter dollar, the sixth of 20 coins to be issued in the four-year series.

Coleman image courtesy of National Women’s History Museum. Background coin image courtesy of the United States Mint.

Black History Month was celebrated numismatically with two February events thematic of African American aviator Bessie Coleman, whose legacy is featured on the reverse design for the first 2023 American Women quarter dollar.

On Feb. 18, the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Chicago — in partnership with the National Women’s History Museum, the U.S. Mint, and the Smithsonian Institution’s American Women’s History Museum — hosted a Community Day event celebrating Coleman’s storied legacy with “Historic Change: The Soaring Life of Pilot Bessie Coleman.”

A re-enactment of Coleman’s contributions to American history was presented by Coleman’s great-niece, Gigi Coleman.

Also participating was author Casey Grant, one of Delta Airlines’ first African American flight attendants.

Bessie Coleman was an early American civil aviator, the first African American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license. Coleman earned her license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, and was the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license.

Coleman was killed at age 34 on April 30, 1926, during a reconnaissance flight preparing for an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. The plane, from which she was to parachute the following day, went into an unexpected tailspin, throwing her out at 2,000 feet, and she died in the fall. The pilot was killed when the plane crashed.

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center put on display its collection of Bessie Coleman aviation artifacts.

FAA return

On Feb. 22, in Washington, D.C., U.S. Mint Director Ventris C. Gibson addressed employees of the Federal Aviation Administration, from which Gibson retired 12 years ago after 35 years with the agency.

In her first return to the FAA since her retirement, Gibson delivered her remarks at the Bessie Coleman Conference Center.

Gibson outlined how the nation’s coin and medal bureau honors African Americans through projects such as the American Women Quarters Program.

“Triumphs and contributions by African Americans are crucial to our country’s development in every aspect, whether it’s science, aviation, education, art, technology or entertainment,” Gibson remarked. “I’m proud that the United States Mint continues to recognize significant events and accomplishments through the design and production of beautiful coins and precious medals.”

Gibson addressed the legacy Coleman established and the obstacles she conquered.

“In September 1922, she made the first public flight by an African American woman in the United States,” Gibson said. “Coleman made a point of refusing to speak or perform anywhere that segregated or discriminated against African Americans.

“In quoting Bessie, ‘The air is the only place free from prejudice. I refused to take no for an answer. I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.’ ”

Following her remarks, Gibson presented a shadow box featuring an enlarged model of the Coleman quarter dollar reverse design along with two quarter dollars from production at the Denver and Philadelphia Mints to FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen.

The 2023 American Women, Bessie Coleman quarter dollar entered general circulation through the Federal Reserve on Jan. 3.

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