Do you know the name Bessie Coleman? She was born on this day 128 years ago and is an important figure in our history but most Americans don’t even know her name, much less recognize her importance.
This makes me incredibly sad because she’s the kind of woman that little girls everywhere should admire and respect.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman and first Native American woman to earn an international pilot’s license. That alone should be enough to give her a place in our history books but the road she traveled to get there is pretty incredible.
Bessie was born to Texas sharecroppers in 1892. After her father left the family, she was raised by a single mother in a house with a dirt floor. She picked cotton as a child and often missed school to care for younger siblings. But she finished the eighth grade and had a burning desire to do something more with her life.
All grown up, she took the train to Chicago where she joined older siblings who were somewhat established in the city. Here she became a manicurist and set to work using both her beauty and talent to network and build a client base.
This was important when she decided to fly.
You see, American flight schools at the time didn’t admit women or black people. But she persevered- she found a better job, saved all the money she could and used her connections to find financial backers.
She also spent this time learning French.
Then she sailed across the ocean to France where racism would not prevent her from pursuing her passion. She enrolled in a flight school where she learned the craft and went on to earn an international aviation license.
The year was 1921 and Bessie was a sensation in the African American press when she came home.
She worked as a barnstormer in this country, traveling all over as an ambassador for black women in aviation. It was her fondest dream to open a flight school for black women someday. She flew and frequently gave talks where she showed footage of her fearless flying.
I struggle to absorb the enormity of this.
The 19th amendment giving women the hard earned right to vote had only been ratified in 1920 so times were much different than we know today.
She was Cherokee, she was African American and she was a woman. Three strikes against her. Three.
And when she was denied the right to pursue her goals, she refused to take no for an answer.
Bessie raised the cash. She learned a second language. She traveled across the sea to a foreign land. She refused to be held back and she fought for her dreams.
What an incredible role model for us all!
Sadly, Bessie’s story does not have a happy ending. She died April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida during a test flight piloted by her mechanic. You see, she was planning a big show that included a parachute jump the following day. As she leaned out the open air cock pot, scoping the terrain for this jump, she was unable to wear a seat belt.
So when the pilot lost control of the plane and it flipped over mid air, Bessie plummeted to her death. A wrench used to service the plane had jammed the controls. She was just 34.
It makes me sad that her story isn’t celebrated and that hers isn’t a household name where I come from. She is known in the African American community and among aviation enthusiasts but I think her name should be as well known as Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh.
The US Postal Service issued a stamp in Bessie’s honor in 1995 as part of their Black Heritage series. Some roads and schools have been named in her honor but she wasn’t even induct into the National Aviation Hall of Fame until 2006.
Not enough, friends. Not enough. I say we help keep her story alive by telling it to others. Share this story, tell your friends about her. Do what you can to make sure this brave woman, this trailblazer for African Americans and women everywhere is not forgotten.
Meanwhile, Happy Birthday to this brave woman who was taken from us too soon!