Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in a one-room, dirt-floored cabin in Atlanta, Texas, to George and Susan Coleman, the illiterate (unable to read and write) children of slaves. When Bessie was two years old, her father, a day laborer, moved his family to Waxahachie, Texas, where he bought a quarter-acre of land and built a three-room house in which two more daughters were born. In 1901 George Coleman left his family. Bessie's mother and two older brothers went to work and Bessie was left as caretaker of her two younger sisters.
Education for Coleman was limited to eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse that closed whenever the students were needed in the fields to help their families harvest cotton. Coleman easily established her position as family leader, reading aloud to her siblings and her mother at night. She often assured her ambitious church-going mother that she intended to "amount to something." After completing school she worked as a laundress and saved her pay until 1910 when she left for Oklahoma to attend Langston University. She left after one year when she ran out of money.
Back in Waxahachie Coleman again worked as a laundress until 1915, when she moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brother, Walter. Within months she became a manicurist and moved to a place of her own while continuing to seek—and finally, in 1920, to find—a goal for her life: to become a pilot.
After befriending several leaders in South Side of Chicago, an African American community, Coleman found a sponsor in Robert Abbott (1868–1940), publisher of the nation's largest African American weekly, the Chicago Defender. There were no African American aviators (pilots) in the area and, when no white pilot was willing to teach her to fly, Coleman turned to Abbott, who suggested that she go to France. Coleman left for France late in 1920. There she completed flight training at the best school in France and was awarded her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.; international pilot's license) license on June 15, 1921. She traveled Europe, gaining further flying experience so that she could perform in air shows.