14. Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was born to a family of Texas sharecroppers in 1892. Working in the cotton fields and attending segregated schools marked her childhood. She was of mixed race, her father descended from a family of Cherokee, her mother African-American. Her father abandoned the family while she was in her early teens. At 24, she moved to Chicago, having completed one semester of college in Langston, Oklahoma. While working as a manicurist she heard stories of flying from pilots bragging of their exploits during World War I. Bitten by the flying bug, she decided to take lessons and become a pilot, but no school in the United States would admit blacks at the time, let alone women.
She worked two jobs in Chicago, saved as much money as she could, learned to speak French in night school, and in 1920 moved to France. There she took flying lessons and in 1921 became the first African-American as well as the first person of Native American descent to be awarded a pilot’s license. Returning to America, she found her ethnicity barred her from employment as a pilot carrying the United States Mail, and she undertook a career as a stunt flyer, barnstorming air shows across the country. She became nationally known for her daring aerial exhibitions, and for her refusal to participate in air shows which barred black Americans from attending. She was killed in an aviation accident in 1926. More than 10,000 attended her funeral in Chicago.