Let’s be honest, even today some little girls have more limits than others. African American girls in particular face closed doors that white girls don’t face. This is true today, but it was even more true in the past.  Which makes Bessie Coleman’s journey more than admirable, it is downright heroic.

Humble Beginnings

Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 Bessie Coleman’s parents could never have imagined that life of adventure she would lead and the barriers she would break. In 1892, Texas was only 27 years past Juneteeth, the day in June of 1865 that black Americans living in bondage discovered that they had been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Her grandparents were slaves, her parents were sharecroppers. Lynchings were common in Texas. The world was not a friendly place for young Bessie. Her family was, in many ways, still living in bondage to the slave system that had shaped their lives.

Under slavery it was illegal to teach slaves to read and as a result her mother Susan Coleman was illiterate. The education system wasn’t much better for Bessie. The one room school she attended was often short on basic supplies like paper and pencils. It closed when the children were needed in the cotton fields, and when she did get to go, she had to walk four miles to get there.

Her father George Coleman worked as a day laborer and then a share cropper. His options as an African American/Native American were limited and by the time Bessie Coleman was nine’ George headed to Oklahoma searching for better opportunities. Life got considerably harder for Bessie. Her Mother and two older brothers went to work and Bessie was left as the de facto caretaker of her two younger sisters.

Looking for a Way Out

Bessie Coleman often told her mother she was going to “amount to something”. This promise wasn’t exactly easy to keep. Her local school only went to eigth grade. So as soon as she finished her schooling, she began working as a laundress and saving her pennies so she could go back to school. In 1910 she headed to Langston University in Oklahoma, but had to leave after a year when she ran out of money. Back in Waxachatchie, she again began working as a laundress and saving her earnings. In 1915 she moved to Chicago and began working as a manicurist.

Dreaming Big and Working Hard

In 1915, Chicago was changing dramatically. WWI had drawn so many American men into the war machine, the US was desperate for workers. This sparked one of the most dramatic changes that American has ever seen: The Great Migration. African American workers flocked to the North eager to take advantage of the better paying jobs newly available to them. Amoung the migrantees was Bessie Coleman. She arrived in Chicago and quickly went to work as a manicurist. Although she was reputed to be the fastest and the best manicurist in the city, she had her sights set way higher than that. She had read and heard stories of wild adventure from returning WWI pilots. These stories sparked her imagination and she finally found her purpose… she wanted to fly.

She did not pick an easy dream. As a matter of fact, there were not many female pilots of ANY race in the United States at the time. The few female pilots that did exist were wealthy and white. How she even dared to dream this for herself is a testament to how much the world had changed since her childhood. Encouraged by Robert Abbott, the publisher of “The Defender” the largest African American newspaper of the day, she began applying to flying schools. This went about as well as you might expect. She was met by resounding no’s from all the schools she approached.

Never Take No For an Answer

Not to be detered, she decided she needed to head to France. First step? Learn French! She withdrew all her savings and spent the next two years learning French. Robert Abbott and another African American entreprenuer helped her further with financial sponsorshop that got her to France. In November of 1920 she enrolled in flying school.

It is hard to have big limitless dreams when you are faced with nothing but closed doors your whole life. For many people that means dreams die before they ever even acknowledge that they exist. The challenges of life squash every spark of hope for a different life they might have had. But for people like Bessie Coleman, she would travel far to make her impossible dreams come true.

There Was No Stopping Bessie Coleman

In 1921 Coleman became the first African American woman to be awarded an international pilot license, and in 1922 the first to stage a public flight in the US.

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What did you dream of when you were young? So many little girls are expected to want to be teachers, nurses, princesses, and mothers. This is not even on purpose, it is just where the expectations are set by our culture. Things are changing and now girls dream of being a doctor-princess and wear toolbelts with their tiaras. Everytime I see a girl dreaming big, I smile inside. It just makes me happy to see them play and dream without limits. I think every girl harbors dreams of adventure in her heart. For me that has meant exploring the world and the women like Bessie Coleman who made that possible. Her spirit would never be tamed no matter what obstacles were in her way, and let’s be real… there was a mountain range of obstacles between her and her dreams.

Check out other Women I Admire in My Women’s History Month Series: Julia Child, Edna Lewis

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