How many times have we heard praises sung for “the common man” or “the common woman”? Far more than I can count, and it bothers me every time the phrase comes up. Why? Because it is not the common to which we owe our highest gratitude. That honor belongs to the uncommon.
Imagine a parent advising a child, “Work hard and some day you might become common!” or “Never let your aspirations rise above commonness!” or “Don’t be different, just blend in with the crowd.” I would pity a child raised in a home of such low aspirations. What a bore humanity would be if no one were uncommonly good or uniquely talented or singularly inspirational or unusually courageous.
In studying history, my attention is drawn to uncommon people, those who do extraordinary things that raise our standards and leave the world a better place. I have no interest in leveling their spirits or accomplishments until they are no higher than average. I leave that nasty business, which has become all too common today, to others.
I recently learned of another inspiring non-commoner and I’m eager to tell you about her right here. Her name was Bessie Coleman.
She was born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 but when she was two, the Coleman clan moved to Waxahachie, Texas where Bessie grew up as one of 13 children in a poor family of cotton sharecroppers. Her mother was African American; her father was part African American and part Native American (either Cherokee or Choctaw). A century ago, being both poor and of minority blood presented you with significant obstacles just about anywhere in the world. You could sulk, complain, or get mad—or you could do what Bessie Coleman did. She overcame barriers with spunk and ambition. She made something of herself.
Bessie aimed high from an early age. She studied hard, read all she could, and dreamed big. She left rural Texas and the dirt-floor cabin of her birth and headed to Chicago in 1915 at the age of 23. While working in a barber shop there, she learned of people flying airplanes in war-torn Europe. She set her sights on becoming a pilot, which meant she would have to go to France to take lessons. All the pilots in America then were white men, and none had any interest in teaching a black woman how to fly.
She worked two jobs. She saved every penny she could. She even learned French in a Berlitz language school. By 1920, Bessie Coleman was ready for Paris. In less than a year, she was the world’s first black woman and its first Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license.
Returning to America, she became a sensation as a barnstorming stunt flyer and a huge attraction for air shows all over the country. For five years as the world’s greatest female civil aviator, she earned the cheers of large crowds thrilled by her daredevil flying.
Biographer Connie Plantz writes,
Every loop-the-loop, barrel roll, and figure eight showed the audience on the ground that an African American could fly a plane. As Bessie Coleman zipped through the sky, her message was as clear as skywriting: Don’t be afraid to take risks. Fly!
Racial discrimination always bothered Bessie. Once she became a famous figure, she used her status to strike at it. She steadfastly refused to participate in any events that prohibited African Americans from attending. Any air show that discriminated paid a high price: They would not get one of the biggest star attractions in the circuit. On another occasion, a movie company flew her to New York to appear in a film called Shadow and Sunshine. When she realized they wanted her in a role that accentuated old stereotypes about blacks, she literally walked off the set.
Tragedy brought Bessie Coleman’s amazing career to an abrupt and early end. In Jacksonville, Florida in April 1926, she was thrown from her plane when it nosedived. She was only 34.
In her book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Doris L. Rich reveals that at the flyer’s funeral in Jacksonville, “More than 5,000 attended the service, among them hundreds of schoolchildren who had heard Bessie speak the day before she was killed.” Three days later when her body arrived in Chicago, another 10,000 filed past her coffin. The next day, five thousand more packed the church for the final service before burial.
Though she did not live long enough to realize her dream of creating a school for black aviators, she inspired countless people precisely because she was so uncommon.
God bless Bessie Coleman, a hero for all people and for all time.
For additional information, see:
The Life of Bessie Coleman by Connie Plantz
Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, by Doris L. Rich
Fly High: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden