Black Birds in the Sky: The Legacies of Bessie Coleman and Dr. Mae Jemison

By Creasman, Kim | The Journal of Negro History, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Black Birds in the Sky: The Legacies of Bessie Coleman and Dr. Mae Jemison


Creasman, Kim, The Journal of Negro History


I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of our Race who are so fax behind the white Race in this modern study.(1)

Bessie Coleman, 1921

Since the development of science and technology, women, especially African-American women, have been, the most part, excluded. Science and technology has usually been considered a white male dominated area; customarily the women may have been the nurses or the assistants behind the men if they were even involved at all. Fortunately, there are African-American women willing to break the mold in science and technology as in any other profession. These women have proven to society that "Yes, I can." They have altered the perspective and made it clear that women cannot and no longer will, be the Mammies, Jezebels, and Sapphires of the twentieth century.(2) African-American women have endured too much to be ignored any longer, and it is time that they receive recognition for their accomplishments.

Although in the science field women are still the minority, the numbers are increasing. Women like Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female astronaut, have shown us that there are many qualified women in our society to take a chance to modify the stereotypes of women and African-Americans. Despite racial, gender, and class restrictions, these two women have conquered the world in their own right. Although they are two different women from two different time periods, their struggles are very similar. Fortunately, Bessie blazed the trail for Mae Jemison and many other future aviators. Here are their histories, similarities, differences, and contributions. You will see just how high they really can fly.

Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1893 in Atlanta, Texas. She began life in an environment which was poverty stricken. She and her family had to pick cotton and launder clothing to survive.(3) Her mother, Susan, was African-American and her father was of Indian descent. Between them, they had thirteen children, Bessie being the twelfth.(4) When Bessie was seven years old, her father left the family in search of Indian territory, mainly in Oklahoma. He encouraged Susan and the children to come, but she refused and he departed.(5)

Susan and Bessie rejected the idea of being helpless. Susan encouraged her children to go t,o school and earn an education. Bessie did not argue. She enjoyed learning and was also assigned the family bookkeeping responsibilities. She even taught herself to read:

I found a brand new world in the written word. I couldn't get enough. I wanted to learn so badly that I finished high school, something very unusual for a black woman in those days. The teachers I had tried so hard. I don't wish to make it sound easy, but I decided I wanted to go to college too. Since my mother could not afford college, I took in laundry and ironing to save up the tuition money.(6)

After graduating high school, Bessie had saved some money and enrolled in the Langston Industrial College in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, she could only attend one semester because she lacked the funds.(7) After leaving Langston, she moved to Chicago to live with her brother(s) and soon enrolled in the Burhham's School of Beauty Culture to study manicuring. After entering into the Cosmetology field at the White Sox Barber shop in Komisky Park, she found it uninteresting and began to pursue a career as a pilot.(8) She began to study the lives of her idols, Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1911, and Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman to, earn a license in 1909.(9) In order for her to fulfill her desire of becoming a pilot, she needed money. Therefore, she took a second job as a waitress at a chili parlor in Chicago to supplement her income.(10)

Dishearteningly, she was not allowed to enroll in a aviation school in the United States. …

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