On behalf of the GSWNY Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee, to celebrate Black History Month, each week we’re highlighting a groundbreaking Black woman for her accomplishments related to the four pillars of Girl Scouts. This week, we’re featuring Bessie Coleman for Outdoors.
Bessie Coleman: 1892-1926
We selected Bessie Coleman for Outdoors because of her adventurous achievements in the world of aviation. While we would love to include all of her feats, travels, and training, as well as more of her personal story, Coleman’s biography is so full and rich that this summary hits mostly only the highlights. There is a bigger picture of multiple American and international events that tie into everything. World War I, Black Americans suffering repeated violence from the Ku Klux Klan and other racists, and even the general changing societal attitudes of the “Roaring ‘20s” all factor into her life and the way she lived. We encourage engaging with the resources provided after her biography to better understand the whole story and more fully appreciate Bessie Coleman’s life and legacy.
(Please note some resources speak frankly about racism, acts of violence including race riots, murder of Black people, and severe discrimination. We recommend pre-screening resources if you have concerns about appropriateness for your family.)
In 1892, Bessie Coleman was born in Texas, one of thirteen children. Her mother was Black and her father was Black and indigenous*. At age seven, her father returned to Oklahoma, then known as ‘Indian Territory.’ Her mother decided to stay in Texas with the family. The children helped pick cotton and once the girls in the family were old enough, they assisted their mother with the washing she took in to further support the family financially.
Coleman completed school in a one-room schoolhouse and saved her money to continue on to college. In 1910, she enrolled what is now known as Langston University in Langston, OK. Only able to afford one semester, she left school and moved in with her older brother in Chicago. She became a beautician and worked as a manicurist, coming to be known as the “fastest manicurist in Black Chicago.”
As World War I began to hit magazines showing the planes used in the war, Coleman loved the idea of flying. She attempted to seek flight training, but was rejected repeatedly, sometimes for her race, sometimes for her gender, sometimes for both. After her brother teased her that she’d never fly like the French women, Coleman departed for France to learn to fly. Only 16 years earlier, the Wright Brothers had their first successful sustained flight, meaning that flying planes was still a fairly new phenomenon. Because the technology was so new and aircrafts were particularly fragile, students often crashed and even died during training. Coleman saw many of her fellow students suffer this fate, but was determined to conquer the skies. She had learned French, saved money, and overcome repeated adversity to get there and would not turn back.
Coleman became the first African-American woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot’s license. She earned her pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, and was the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license. To receive this license, she had to demonstrate life-saving maneuvers including turning off the engine before touching down.
After initially learning to fly, Coleman learned that more money could be made by flying for entertainment and extended her training in France. In 1922, she appeared in an air show at Curtiss Field near New York City. After a successful demonstration, she performed more shows in Memphis, Chicago, and then in Texas. She didn’t own her own plane and decided to travel to California to earn money and buy one, but after crashing it, she returned to Chicago to formulate a new plan.
Two years later, she did a lecture series and exhibition flights in Texas, and was able to make a down payment on a Jenny (a JN-4 plane with an OX-5 engine). By now, Coleman knew she wanted to open an African American flying school. She did lectures at Black theaters in Florida and Georgia. She opened a beauty shop in Orlando to speed up her money-earning toward the school. Using borrowed planes she continued to perform flying exhibitions and even some parachute jumps. As she had done at other exhibitions in the past, Coleman refused to perform unless the audiences were welcomed in using the same gates and remained desegregated in the venue.
Coleman had finally made the final payment on her Jenny plane in Dallas and arranged to have it flown to Jacksonville, FL. On April 30, 1926, she and her mechanic went on a test flight. Once in the air, the plane suffered a malfunction and the mechanic lost control. Sadly, both Coleman and the mechanic lose their lives in the accident.
At her memorial service in Orlando, 5,000 mourners attended. In Chicago at her funeral, 15,000 people paid their respects. Sadly, while Coleman did not get the opportunity to establish the African American flying school she dreamt of during her life, William J. Powell started the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles in 1929. Either trained by the school or inspired by Bessie Coleman, famous groups of Black flyers followed in Coleman’s footsteps including the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, The Tuskeegee Airmen, and others. She is remembered by the nicknames Brave Bessie or Queen Bess.
In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began an annual flyover at Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery to honor Coleman. In 1977, women pilots in Chicago established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Bessie Coleman stamp commemorating her accomplishments solidifying her as an American legend.
The above has been adapted from her biography on the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s website https://www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/coleman-bessie/ in combination with the Bessie Coleman organization’s website: http://www.bessiecoleman.org/bio-bessie-coleman.php
*NOTE: We opted to use the term ‘indigenous.’ After that we used the term ‘Indian Territory’ as that was the literal name of the area at the time. People of indigenous North American descent have varying preferences for how they are referred to such as ‘Native American,’ ‘American Indian,’ ‘Indian,’ and other terms, although many prefer to be called by their specific Nation or tribal names. This topic itself is its own journey of discovery and we encourage research and consideration into this subject. On the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s FAQ page (https://americanindian.si.edu/) they offer this:
What is the correct terminology: American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native?
All of these terms are acceptable. The consensus, however, is that whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or indigenous American are preferred by many Native people.
The following resources expand on Coleman’s life and work.
- Brittanica (shows the Bessie Coleman USPS stamp at the bottom of the page): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bessie-Coleman
- PBS American Experience: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/
- PBS American Masters: Unladylike 2020 (video) – Content Warning: This short film is presented by Black women speaking about Bessie Coleman as well as the history of the time period in a very honest way. The source shows brief clips from the racist film ‘Birth of a Nation’ as well as very distressing real photographs of murders of Black people. We especially recommend pre-screening this resource before presenting it to your child or family.: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/bessie-coleman-unladylike2020-ixq4iz/13685/
- Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast: Bessie Coleman: Daredevil Aviatrix: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/stuff-you-missed-in-history-cl-21124503/episode/bessie-coleman-daredevil-aviatrix-30207985/
- History at Home with The History Guy: https://youtu.be/bECNMdbq8ac
- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Flights of Fancy Story Time: Bessie Coleman (for young children): https://youtu.be/7gPF9IzlfcE
Black History Month Facts & Information
It is difficult to capture in just one month the achievements of African Americans and their contributions to American history and culture. Here are a few historic African American female firsts spanning various topics that we hope will inspire you to study and celebrate Black history beyond Black History Month.
- Phillis Wheatley, a woman who was enslaved, was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. She was emancipated shortly after her book was published.
- In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind.
- In 1963, Cicely Tyson became the first African American to star in a TV drama when she joined the series East Side/West Side.
- In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America.
- Before there was Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, singer and actress Brandy was the first Black Disney Princess when she played in the live-action Cinderella in 1997 (it’s now available on Disney+).
- In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg became the first African American to achieve the EGOT, having won an Emmy (2002), Grammy (1985), Oscar (1990), and Tony Award (2002). Less than 20 people have achieved this!
- In 2012, at the London Olympics, Gabby Douglas became the first Black gymnast to win the Individual All-Around title.
Activities for All Ages
For Daisies & Brownies
- Bessie Coleman Coloring Pages Page 1 | Page 2
- Hiking Day by Anne Rockwell Read-Aloud Video
- Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden and Mary Kroeger Read-Aloud Video
For Juniors & Cadettes
- Virtually visit national parks and other historic sites on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
- Learn more about pioneering Black athletes in your favorite sports
- Bessie Coleman Crossword Puzzle (do some research to discover the answers!)
- Underground Railroad Junior Ranger Booklet
For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults
- Virtually visit national parks and other historic sites on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
- Follow Outdoor Afro (a nonprofit connecting Black people to nature experiences and outdoor leadership) on Facebook and Instagram
- Follow GirlTrek (a walking community and public health movement by and for Black women) on Facebook and Instagram
- Make a donation to (or make a plan to participate in) a community garden or urban farm in your neighborhood
Girl Scout Values: Anti-Racism Patch
The Girl Scouts Anti-Racism Patch is a reflection that we are committed to our Girl Scout values that foster a community of justice, fairness, and inclusion. This Black History Month, consider using the list of ideas and resources provided to earn the patch with your girl or troop and when you are ready, sign our Girl Scouts Stands Against Racism Pledge.