Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman tells the story of Bessie Coleman the first African-American woman to receive an international pilot’s license. It is a wonderful book for children, as it teaches the important lesson that no matter where you come from, you can make something of yourself. Born in 1892 in in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman was the granddaughter of slaves and grew up working on up on a plantation picking cotton. But Bessie applied herself in school and learned math and worked two jobs so that she could advance beyond an 8th grade education and attend college.
When she was old enough, she left home and attended college, but unfortunately only had enough money to attend one term of college. She wanted a better life than what she had in Texas where she had grown up, so she moved to Chicago, Illinois where her brothers had found employment, and where she hoped to find a job in the big city too. When she got to Chicago, her brothers who had served in World War I, told her about how there were female pilots in Paris who were very popular. She also read about these brave women in the newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. Bessie thought about how exciting it would be to fly planes too, and decided she too would become a pilot!
Bessie got a job in a restaurant and as a manicurist to make money to pay for flying lessons. She also took French language classes to prepare her for her trip to France. At age 28, Bessie boarded a ship and sailed to France where she took flying lessons for a year. She returned home to America where she performed several air shows in New York. She became a star and was well-loved. She would visit African-American schools and encourage children to have goals. She would tell children “You can do something too! Fly high!”
Because flying a plane was very new at the time, it was very risky and accidents were common. In 1926, 20 days before Bessie was to fly in a show in Jacksonville, Florida, she crashed during a rehearsal flight and died. Five-thousand people attended her memorial in Jacksonville, Florida. Her formal funeral in Chicago brought 10,000 mourners.
While her death was tragic and untimely, her life is a celebration that women, just like men, can do uncommon and great things, when they put their minds to it. And for the child, boy or girl, who has dreams of becoming a pilot, Bessie Coleman’s story is a great story for teaching that lesson.