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February 10, 2021 3 min read

The Hat that made History – The story of Bessie Coleman

My name is Kyra and I own a clothing brand called Resilient Grace where I tell the untold stories of African-American women that we should have learned about in history class. Every Wednesday I dress up as a Black Heroine from the past and tell her story. It’s called “Woman You Should Know Wednesday”. This week, with the help of the beautiful Lieutenanthat from Gigi Pip, I am recreating and telling the story of the first African- American female pilot, Bessie Coleman.

The story of Bessie Coleman

Bessie’s story is beyond phenomenal and is saturated with resilience and determination. She was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, almost 30 years after slavery ended in a home with dirt floors. She was the tenth of thirteen children and like most African-Americans in the South during this time, her parents were sharecroppers. Bessie did not know a job outside of sharecropping, and the Jim Crow South she was born into was filled with violence and lynchings
against African-Americans. Bessie’s escape from this world was school. She loved school so she walked 8 miles every day to attend her one room segregated school house. She was good at reading, and math, and she even had early dreams of flying. However, every year school would stop during cotton season so that kids like Bessie could go home and help their families work by picking cotton. Despite her circumstances, Bessie always knew she wanted more than the life
she had grown up in. At this time, flying was exclusive to white men. White women were rarely allowed to attain A pilot’s license, but racism and sexism had doubly excluded black women.

When Bessie was 24, she moved out of the South, and into Chicago to live with her brothers and have a change of pace. At this time, Chicago had better opportunities for African-Americans, so she worked as a manicurist in a barbershop. In the barbershop, WW1 pilots would come in sharing war stories and even talking about how some of the combat pilots in Europe were women. This reignited Bessie’s passion to fly, so she applied to flight schools.
Unfortunately, she was denied from every school she applied to in the United States, but she came to the conclusion that Europe was another world that allowed people who looked like her to fly planes and she wanted to be a part of that. She found a sponsor in a man named Robert Abbott who owned a prominent African- American newspaper. She studied French for a year
and then Bessie moved to France to begin her journey of making her dreams come true.

In November of 1920, Bessie moved to France, and by June 1921 she became the first African-American woman to receive her pilots’ license. She returned to the United States in 1921 and was held a hero in the very same place that she had been denied her dream. She became a stunt pilot and known as “Brave Bess” and “Queen Bess” .She took this newfound fame and immediately went to work to create a world with better opportunities for little girls like her that
had grown up with big dreams. She became an activist who refused to do airshows that did not allow African- Americans to attend. She also became a public speaker who shared her story to encouraging African-Americans to go after their dreams. She even did airshows in Texas, including flying over the areas she had grown up picking cotton. She also began work on her big dream which was to create a flight school for African Americans. She once said, “I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.” She may have been the first, but she didn’t want to be the last. Unfortunately, Bessie was killed in a plane accident when she was only 33 years old. However, in 1929, other black aviators made her dreams come true by creating a flight school called The Bessie Coleman Aero Club.


The story of Bessie Coleman

As I wear the Gigi Pip Lieutenant hat, I am reminded of Bessie, and how excited she must have been to put on her pilot’s hat for the first time. It was probably the first time she felt like her dreams were valid and that she could really make a change. Bessie Coleman refused to take no for an answer, and her drive and determination opened the door for so many women to come behind her.

So to the woman who wore the hat that changed the world, THANK YOU.

Want to learn more about these amazing + influential women who changed the world? Check out Kyra's website + Instagram!!