The story of Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman began amidst the racially charged atmosphere of the American South at the beginning of the 20th century. Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the 10th of 13 children, Coleman was allowed to focus on her education in her youth rather than toil with her siblings on the farm. As a young woman, she traveled to Chicago and landed work as a manicurist, but after hearing returning World War I veterans talk about the exploits of female airplane pilots in Europe, Coleman set out to earn her pilot’s license. With no such opportunity available under the prevailing Jim Crow laws, Coleman traveled to Paris, where she became the first African-American to obtain an international pilot’s license. Coleman went on to become a world-renowned show pilot. Several years of successful shows and accolades followed until tragedy struck on April 30, 1926, when Coleman fell out of her plane during a practice flight in Florida.
Many history books teach that Robert Peary became the first man to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. Many of these same books omit an important member of his team, Matthew Henson. Born on a Maryland farm in 1866, Henson worked as a seaman before accepting employment on a Nicaraguan expedition led by Peary in 1887. The two worked together for two decades, most of it spent in the Arctic, before mounting their successful bid to reach the North Pole. As they neared the expedition’s end, Peary fell ill and sent Henson ahead. Henson became the first to reach the pole and planted the American flag, although Peary received most of the acclaim. When Henson penned the novel A Negro Explorer at the North Pole in 1912, Peary vilified the book and subsequent lecture tours, referring to Henson as no more than a glorified servant. As Henson told the Boston American in 1910, “After twenty-two years of service with Peary we are now as strangers … From the moment I declared to Commander Peary that I believed we stood upon the Pole he apparently ceased to be my friend.”