On the third level of its Main Terminal, Orlando International Airport in Florida is displaying a Bessie Coleman exhibit for Black History Month, February 2023.
The text panels chronicle the visual history of the life and accomplishments of Coleman (1892-1926), who was the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold an international pilot’s license, issued from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in France on June 15, 1921. Vintage photographs of Coleman are exhibited with text panels that tell her history, including a lesser-known short chapter spent in Orlando.
Shortly before the plane accident that took Coleman’s life in 1926, she was living in Orlando with the Reverend Hezekiah Keith Hill and his wife, Viola Tillinghast Hill. She became close to the couple and stayed with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church. Mrs. Hill encouraged Coleman to open a beauty shop in Orlando to supplement her income to save money to buy a plane, so she could perform her stunts at one-woman air shows around the country. After her accident, 5,000 mourners attended a memorial service for her in Orlando. Subsequently, West Washington Street, where she had lived with the Hills, was officially designated Bessie Coleman Street by the Florida Legislature in 2014, and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority named its executive conference room for the aviation pioneer.