HerStory February 2020: Bessie Coleman

For our second HerStory of the new year/decade, we’re soaring through the air with Bessie Coleman, who had the wonderful distinction, in 1921, of being BOTH the first African American woman AND the first Native American woman to pilot a plane. The daughter of a black maid and a Cherokee sharecropper, Bessie fought against the “can’ts” her entire life; she worked at picking cotton with her mother during harvest season, giving up her education for the season, she had to drop out of college due to financial constraints, and there was just plain never enough money. When she was a young adult, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers and got a job as a manicurist in a local barber shop. She became obsessed with the idea of becoming a pilot, thanks to some brotherly teasing (they had served in WWI and knew that, in France, it was actually possible for a woman to learn to fly. Of course, that wasn’t an option in America.) Bessie worked hard, learned French, and applied to flight school in Le Crotoy, France, where she received her international pilot’s license. Honestly, just that, in the 1920s in America, was a ginormous accomplishment. But Bessie did not stop there.

She came back to the US in 1921 and began performing as a “barnstorming” pilot, loop-de-looping all over the place (this was well before commercial flight, and there weren’t many options for pilots other than paid performing). She flat-out refused to speak or perform any place that was segregated, and she prioritized the lifting up of other black women over anything else. Her activism and advocacy paved the way for future female (and male) pilots of color, and she never once compromised her morals, even it it meant a deferment of her dreams. In fact, she was asked to star in a film production, which would have helped a great deal in her goal of owning her own plane, but when she saw that she’d be cast in a stereoptypical and derogatory role, she refused. Bessie Coleman was not about to feed into those long-held perceptions about black people, even if it meant her career would suffer.She didn’t live long enough to fulfill her life’s mission: opening a flight school for black women. She died as she lived, flying high in the sky, a definite loss for so many communities. But, Coleman’s legacy is long-lasting, and felt even today, every time a young woman of color pushes through the “can’ts” and the “not for you’s” and achieves what had previously been thought of as insurmountable. As you knit your Queen Bess socks, take a moment to reflect on the heights Bessie Coleman soared in her short life, and what she was able to achieve. Fly like the wind, and don’t compromise your beliefs to get ahead. A lesson we can all stand to learn, especially in this emotionally difficult and sometimes frightening world.