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There are certain people you find out about in adulthood that you can’t believe you didn’t know about before. This happens the most when it comes to those in marginalized groups. Figures that broke barriers during their time that aren’t talked about in the classroom can slowly become erased from the history books. Bessie Coleman was one of those people.
Luckily the history buffs out there make room for unknown trailblazers to be brought to the forefront. Coleman was the first Black woman to receive a pilot’s license. She had multiple nicknames that highlighted her skill and adventurous spirit, one of them being “Brave Bessie” according to Women’s History. Coleman got this nickname through continually performing tricks while flying. Her journey to the sky is an interesting one.
She was born in 1892 to two sharecroppers and was one of 13 children (thirteen! Imagine the chaos…). Coleman initially tried to attend Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but could only stay for one term due to financial constraints. She didn’t actually become interested in flying until moving to Chicago in 1915. At 23 she listened to World War I stories and from there, her interest was sparked.
As we can see in the news now with the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, racial injustice in this country is nothing new, and while Coleman was aiming to get her pilot’s license she ran into discrimination on a large scale.
The United States would not admit her into flying school because of her race, but instead of giving up and staying in Chicago, she took the initiative to teach herself French so that she could attend Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in France. Then on June 15, 1921 history was made when she received her pilot’s license from Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Outside of being a flyer she did have other aspirations to own a plane and create a flight school of her own. While this dream festered she inspired others across the world by giving speeches, playing films of her doing different flying tricks, and giving flight lessons. I can’t imagine the mix of fear and excitement she must have been feeling as she literally flew to new heights and shattered the beliefs people had about what pilots could and should look like. Coleman also took part in on-the-ground activism. She never spoke anywhere that discriminated against African-Americans or enforced segregation. Her audiences took note, and she was able to create change through subtle but important choices.
Her time as a flyer brought highs and lows. She gained popularity in the United States and Europe because of tricks like figure eights and loops. Unfortunately, she met a tragic end and died due to a wrench getting stuck in the engine of a plane she was in. But even after her death she still had a lasting impact. In 1977, Black female pilots formed an aviator club named the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, and the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago now fly over her grave every year. Coleman opened doors for other Black women to be pilots.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bessie Coleman getting her pilot’s license. While I may not have dreams of becoming a pilot, I find inspiration in Bessie’s determination to achieve her dreams no matter what anyone might say or do.
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