Bessie Coleman: GSWNY Celebrates Black History Month

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.  


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.  

  1. 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. 
  2. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind.  
  3. In 1963, Cicely Tyson became the first African American to star in a TV drama when she joined the series East Side/West Side
  4. In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America. 
  5. 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+).   
  6. 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!  
  7. 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

For Juniors & Cadettes

For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults 


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.

Download patch information

Sign the pledge

Dr. Susan McKinney Steward: GSWNY Celebrates Black History Month

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 Dr. Susan McKinney Steward for STEM.


Dr. Susan McKinney Steward: 1847-1918 

We selected Susan McKinney Steward, M.D., for STEM because she is hailed as the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and the first African American female physician in New York state. While those are great accomplishments for any person, they are even more powerful when you consider what she had to overcome due to racism and sexism at the time. Steward’s story is impossible to summarize in a few short paragraphs. Although we attempted to select some highlights, reading a more extensive biography is vital to get a true grasp of the monumental amount of achievements she had in her lifetime. The below biography is adapted from the History of American Women blog: https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2015/05/susan-mckinney-steward.html  

Susan McKinney Steward was born Susan Maria Smith in 1847, and she was the seventh of 10 children born to a multi-racial family. Her mother was of indigenous Shinnecock and French descent, and her father’s ancestors included an indigenous Montauk* and an African who escaped from a slave ship.  

In 1867, Steward enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women, founded by Dr. Clemence Sophia Lozier, one of the first female doctors in the United States. At this point in history, women (regardless of race) were not welcome to attend male medical schools. Besides welcoming Black students, the college was the first school where women of New York City could study medicine and the first hospital where women patients could receive medical care from doctors of their own gender.  

Steward graduated from the college as class valedictorian in 1870, also earning the honor of becoming the first African American female physician in New York and the third in America. She established a medical practice in her Brooklyn home and was able to open a second office in Manhattan. Her patients ran the spectrum in age, race, and income. Many affectionately called her Dr. Susan. 

In 1871, she married William G. McKinney, an Episcopal minister from South Carolina. The couple lived in her parents’ home, and in 1874 moved to the predominantly white area of Brooklyn where they had two children. She also continued her education and in 1888 was the only woman in a post-graduate class from the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. Sadly, in 1890 her husband suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain). She supported the family and six additional relatives who lived in the McKinney household. Her husband passed in 1892.  

In 1896, she married Theophilus Gould Steward, an ordained minister and chaplain of the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry. Dr. Steward moved several times as her husband was stationed at various army posts in the West, earning medical licenses and practicing medicine in Montana and Wyoming. In 1898, she was hired as a resident physician and a health and nutrition teacher Wilberforce University in Ohio. Although she followed her husband to other jobs in other states, she eventually returned to her position with Wilberforce University where her husband later became a history teacher.  

Steward participated in significant social reform for women’s equality, suffrage, and temperance. She shed light on issues surrounding prenatal care and childhood diseases. She actively worked to establish medical facilities for people of color and the elderly, even serving as a surgeon at one.  

In 1911, she attended a Universal Race Congress in London and presented a paper titled “Colored American Women,” which dealt with achievements of famous African American women including Phyllis Wheatley, Ida Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. She was lauded as an incredible public speaker. 

In 1914, Dr. Steward delivered a speech “Women in Medicine” before the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in Wilberforce, OH. In this speech she examined the history of women in medicine from Biblical times to 1914. Steward concluded that there was no need for separate medical schools for women, but that they should have equal opportunity for internships.  

Dr. Steward died suddenly on March 7, 1918, at Wilberforce University at age 71. Her body was returned to Brooklyn for burial. At her funeral the famous feminist, author, and social reformer Hallie Quinn Brown delivered her eulogy. Dr. William S. Scarborough, president of Wilberforce University, and author Dr. W.E.B. DuBois also spoke at the funeral. 

In 1974, the New York Board of Education named a Brooklyn school the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School. During the 1980s, African-American women doctors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut named their medical society after Steward. 

*NOTE: As Steward is of Shinnecock and Montauk descent, we opted to use the term ‘indigenous.’ 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 Steward’s life and work. 


Black History Month Facts & Information

When looking for examples of contributions that African Americans have made to the United States, you do not have to look far. In fact, you probably used or came across one today! Here’s two examples: 

Three-Position Traffic Signal – Garret Morgan 

On November 20, 1923, Morgan received a patent for his electric automatic three-position traffic signal. Although it was not the first traffic signal, it was an important innovation because previous traffic sign 

s were manually operated and only had two positions: stop and go with no interval in between, causing many collisions. Morgan’s third position directed traffic to stop in all directions (precursor to the yellow light), giving drivers enough time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered it.  

Closed Circuit Television Security System – Marie Van Brittan Brown 

To feel safer while at home alone, Brown invented the first home security system in 1966. Her system included four peepholes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and microphones, the foundations for today’s modern home security systems. She also created a remote with a button to unlock the door and a button to call the police! In 1969, Brown and her husband received a patent for the invention and later she received an award from the National Science Committee.


Activities for All Ages

For Daisies & Brownies

For Juniors & Cadettes

For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults 


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.

Download patch information

Sign the pledge

Madame C.J. Walker: GSWNY Celebrates Black History Month

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 program pillars of Girl Scouts. This week, we’re highlighting Madame C.J. Walker for Entrepreneurship.


Madame C.J. Walker: 1867-1919 

We selected Madam C.J. Walker for Entrepreneurship because she is often held up as one of the first examples of a Black woman having an internationally successful business that still exists today and becoming America’s first female self-made millionaire, despite experiencing racism and discrimination throughout her life. Walker’s story is difficult to reduce to a brief biography, so we encourage further research into her life and story.  

Born as Sarah Breedlove to former slaves on Dec. 23, 1867 in Louisiana, she was one of six children. Sadly, at age seven, she became an orphan and lived with her older sister Louvenia working in the cotton fields. To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Breedlove married at age 14. She had a daughter (born with the name Lelia, but later known as A’Lelia) with her husband, but sadly a few short years later in 1887 he passed away leaving her a single parent.  

Two years later, she moved to St. Louis, MO, where her four brothers were barbers. She worked as a laundress and cook to support herself. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, meeting successful and educated Black men and women. In 1894, she remarried, but later divorced.  

In 1904, Walker was experiencing hair loss and began using African American businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” and joined her team of Black sales agents. In 1905, she moved to Denver, CO, and married advertiser Charles Joseph Walker, renaming herself to Madam C.J. Walker, and launching her own life of hair products for Black women called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”  

Her husband assisted her with advertising and setting up a mail-order business. In 1910, the couple divorced and she relocated to Indianapolis, building a factory for her Walker Manufacturing Company. She opened a training program in the “Walker System” for Black people to become licensed sales agents, earning commissions and providing a means for Black women to become economically independent. She employed 40,000 Black people in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917.  

Through her philanthropic and political work, Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for 6 African American students at the Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement.  

Walker’s sales exceeded $500,000 by the end of her life, and with assets like her mansion in Irvington, NY, and additional properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, her net worth exceeded $1 million dollars. Her will allocated donations of profits from her company toward various schools and individuals. Today, her products are sold exclusively by Sephora under the name Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, sometimes abbreviated to MCJW Beauty Culture or MCJW Beauty.  

The above biography was adapted from the National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker  

The following resources expand on Walker’s life and work.  


Black History Month Facts & Information

Vice President Kamala Harris’ victory is historic in more than just one way. Not only is she the first woman of color to serve as vice president, but she is also the first high-ranking White House official to graduate from a historically Black college or university (HBCU). HBCUs were created in the 19th century to provide higher education to African Americans who at the time, and for many years afterward, were denied admission to existing colleges and universities which were predominantly white. The Institute for Colored Youth (now named Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), founded in 1837, was the first HBCU in the United States. Today, there are over 100 HBCUs and they serve students from a wide range of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Vice President Harris graduated from Howard University in 1986.

Here are some other African American women who also accomplished notable “firsts” and attended HBCUs:

  • Alice Walker – first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – Spelman College
  • Althea Gibson – first African American tennis player to win Wimbledon, French, and U.S. Open titles – Florida A&M University
  • Oprah Winfrey – first African American woman to host a nationally syndicated talk show – Tennessee State University
  • Phylicia Rashad – first African American to win a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play – Howard University
  • Stacey Abrams – first African American female nominee for governor in the United States – Spelman College
  • Toni Morrison – first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – Howard University

Activities for All Ages

For Daisies & Brownies

For Juniors & Cadettes

For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults 


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.

Download patch information

Sign the pledge

Sojourner Truth: GSWNY Celebrates Black History Month

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 Sojourner Truth for Life Skills.


Sojourner Truth: 1797-1883 

We selected Sojourner Truth for Life Skills because she exemplified civic engagement, public speaking, writing and communication, and numerous other skills. She was an advocate for abolition, temperance, civil rights, and women’s rights. While we offer a glimpse of Truth here in this brief bio, we encourage everyone to research more about her life and work. Her monumental impact on the world is difficult to capture in a few words.  

Truth was born 1797 as Isabella Bomfree (sometimes spelled Baumfree), a slave in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, NY. As a slave, she was bought and sold four times, surviving harsh physical labor and violence. Beginning in her teens, she had five children. In 1827, she fled with her infant daughter, Sophia, to a nearby abolitionist family, the Van Wageners, who purchased her freedom for $20 and assisted her in suing for the return of her five-year-old-son Peter, who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. 

In 1828, Bomfree moved to New York City and worked for a minister. During her religious work, she felt called on to preach truth and renamed herself Sojourner Truth. She met Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and with encouragement from Garrison’s anti-slavery organization, she gave speeches on the evils of slavery.  

In 1850, she dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, having never learned to read or write. Book sales were so successful she was able to sustain herself and received national recognition. This led her to meeting women’s rights activists and temperance advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A year later, she began a lecture tour for women’s rights and delivered her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech championing racial and gender equality.  

She continued to speak nationally and help slaves escape to freedom. At the start of the Civil War, she urged men to join the Union and organized supplies for Black troops. After the war, she continued her anti-slavery and equality work through organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau.  

All of the above was adapted from her biography on the National Women’s History Museum Website (https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth).  

The following resources expand on Sojourner Truth’s life and work. (Please note some resources may describe or allude to the horrors of slavery and acts of violence and discrimination. We recommend pre-screening resources if you have concerns about appropriateness for your family.)  


Black History Month Facts & Information

Black History Month (or African American History Month) was first celebrated in 1926 as Negro History Week, created by Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson. The second week in February was chosen for the celebration to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). The purpose of Negro History Week was to highlight the often-overlooked achievements of African Americans and their contributions to American history and culture. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a national observance. Today, Black History Month continues to promote the study of Black history and celebration of African American accomplishments not just in February, but also throughout the year. 


Activities for All Ages

For Daisies & Brownies

For Juniors & Cadettes

For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults 


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.

Download patch information

Sign the pledge