I stumbled upon the story of Bessie Coleman several years ago on the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast and have been in awe of her story ever since.
Bessie was not only a talented aviator, she was the first African American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. In the early 1900’s, American flight schools would not accept her application based on her race and gender, so Bessie learned French, moved to France and was accepted to one of the top aviation schools in the world. She earned her pilot's license a year before Amelia Earhart.
After returning to the U.S., Bessie became the first African American woman to make a public flight in America. Not only was she an excellent pilot, she also specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. She was extremely popular and made several exhibition flights in her lifetime, which she looked on as not just an opportunity to showcase her skills, but to encourage other African Americans to take to the skies as well.
Quote from Bessie: "The sky is the only place there is no prejudice. Up there everyone is equal, everyone is free."
Although cut short, she led a courageous and adventurous life and continued fighting for her dreams while surpassing roadblocks put her way. Her bravery and perseverance undoubtedly changed the course of aviation, not only in America but in the world.
She created a life for herself that was boundless - she rubbed elbows with princes and entertainers, she accepted and then didn't show up for a movie role after learning the role would portray an African American stereotype, she refused to perform at a popular airshow unless there was an integrated entrance. She understood her popularity allowed her a platform to advance African American progress and she used her voice for that purpose without wavering.
Her official website sums it up perfectly: "Her sights were bigger than yesterday or today. She wanted to influence tomorrow."
I strongly recommend listening to the SYMIHC podcast about Bessie Coleman to learn more about the life of this fascinating and inspiring woman. They do such an amazing job of bringing her story to life.
After learning more about her, you'll be asking yourself - when's the movie coming out?
Fun Fact: In Chicago, May 2nd is Bessie Coleman day.