Most of us have heard of Amelia Earhart or the Wright Brothers, but have you heard the story of Bessie Coleman?
Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born with long odds but did incredible things in this world. January 26th, 1892 Bessie was born in Atlanta, Texas and like many of our heroines, was born into a large, poor family in the South in the 1800s. Bessie was the 10th of 13 children to parents were sharecroppers, and whose parents before were slaves. When it was time for school, she actually did have to walk four miles a day to attend the one room, segregated school house. All eight grades were educated in one room, but in that one room the imaginations of all of those children was allowed to grow. Bessie was a great student who excelled at math and was an avid reader. The only thing that could ever interrupt her from school was the system where sharecroppers children had to take off from school to work on the farm during harvest. Otherwise, it was four miles to get to the school she loved.
Bessie would know heartbreak, her father would leave her mother and twelve siblings in hope of better opportunities but left the children to work a little harder to try and financially support the family on their own. Bessie still made it a point to go to school. She took out her own savings to attend college, but simply the money ran out and she had to withdraw. For a girl wit big dreams, this is of course very sad.
Bessie was a natural adventuress, and was determined to find something special to do with her life. Two older brothers, like so many blacks in the early 1900s, moved north for work and opportunities. She joined them. It was 1916, she had two jobs - in a barber shop as a manicurist and in a chili parlor - she was 23 years old, but it was this point in her life that she realized that her dream was to fly. Hearing many former soldiers come back from WWI and talking about their incredible adventures was certainly a part of that. Flying was still in it's early years, and those who knew how to fly were generally white men. A black woman would have a very different experience pursuing her dreams. Bessie did not care, and went after her dream.
Luckily, she knew two black entrepreneurs in Chicago who served as great idea generators in terms of how to pursue her dreams, but also to help financially. Since nobody in the US would allow a black woman into their aviation class, Bessie and her entrepreneur / mentors realized that she would have to go to France to learn, she would be admitted there. They helped to contact the school to gain admissions. Knowing absolutely no French, Bessie took out her little savings and went to the Berlitz school to learn. She then made the trip to NY to get on a steamboat to France. She would be the only non-white student, but she was allowed to learn. After about seven months, Bessie was granted by the Federation Aeronautique International her aviation license on June 15th, 1921. This made Bessie, at the age of 23, the first black - man or woman - licensed pilot in the world.
Bessie returned to the United States eager to be in flying shows, but also with a goal of furthering the rights and dreams of black Americans. Bessie championed blacks learning aviation and having the right to study it. She planned to open an Aviation School herself for African Americans specifically, a big step as none of the existing schools would even admit her.
While she started as a media sensation coming back from France as a black pilot, she immediately became one of the biggest draws in the aviation show circuit. We still have aviation shows today, showing off some of the newest planes, showcasing incredible stunts - Bessie was doing this all in the 1920s. She was really fearless and wowed the crowds, earning the moniker 'Brave Bessie'. She was national news, and would fly across country at the many air shows. And when she did, she'd be sure to stop in at schools to encourage young black students who didn't have a lot of national role models back then, to dream and to pursue that dream. Of course she hoped many would do aviation, but she was giving back and wanted to encourage black youth everywhere. It was the 1920s in the US and segregation was also everywhere. She was an advocate and insisted on ensuring the black students would be allowed the same treatment at her presentations. And they were.
Flying back then was very new, and very risky. Her first major accident was in 1924, and forced her to take many months off to recover. Accidents were a real threat. Her last flight was April 21st, 1926. Bessie met her mechanic who had problems with the plane, but she decided with one day before a big air show to test it out While about 3500 feet in the air, the plane jumped and she was thrown out of the plane, which would crash a few moments after.
Bessie passed at only 34 years of age, but her accomplishments are refusal to accept a system that kept her from her dreams remains an incredible inspiration to us all today and always.