Bessie Coleman or "Queen Bess" became the first African American woman to hold an international pilot license. In 1915, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois and found work as a manicurist. She was enthralled by stories she overheard from pilots returning home from WWI and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot.
Coleman was unable to find a school or a pilot that would train an African American woman in the U.S. It wasn't until 1920 that she finally gained financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, to study abroad at the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) in France.
On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman and the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license from the FAI and returned to the United States a media darling. Soon after, Coleman made a name for herself as a stunt flyer and had aspirations of establishing a school for African American aviators before her untimely death in April of 1926 at the age of 34.
See the courageous and daring story of Bessie Coleman in And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations open now through Sept. 1 #AndStillWeRise
-Assia Johnson, Public Relations and Social Media Coordinator
On Nov. 11, 2013 at 6 p.m. the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will host a public program honoring the contributions of African Americans in the military. Called to Arms is a Veterans Day program that will explore the legacies of military service from the lens of African Americans. In celebrating Veterans Day, there are a number of African Americans who are deserving of praise and acknowledgement. My father, who served in the U.S. Navy, would often tell me the story of Dorie Miller when I was a child. When my father spoke of Dorie Miller, he had nothing but pride in his voice.
Following training at the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Va., Dorie Miller was assigned to the ammunition ship USS Pyro (AE-1) where he served as a Mess Attendant, and then was transferred to the USS West Virginia (BB-48), where he became the ship's heavyweight boxing champion. In July of 1940 he had temporary duty aboard the USS Nevada (BB-36) at Secondary Battery Gunnery School. He returned to West Virginia and on 3 August, and was serving in that battleship when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Miller had arisen at 6 a.m., and was collecting laundry when the alarm for general quarters sounded. He headed for his battle station only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it, so he went on deck. Because of his physical prowess, he was assigned to carry wounded fellow Sailors to places of greater safety. Then an officer ordered him to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded Captain of the ship. He subsequently manned a 50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship. Of the 1,541 men on the West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. Dorie Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy and he received the Navy Cross for his extraordinary courage in battle.
The story of Dorie Miller is one of many among the legacy of African Americans serving in the military. Stories like the Dorie Miller symbolizes the cornerstones of freedom, courage, cooperation and perseverance. Join us on Nov. 11, 2013 at 6 p.m. for Called to Arms and celebrate the legacies of African American’s military service.
- Christopher Miller, Manager of Program Initiatives
Twelve years after the British colony of Jamestown was founded in Virginia, the first Dutch ship brought several African men and women to the colony in 1619. These people may have been indentured servants, but they were probably sold as slaves. Over the next two centuries, the colonies expanded along the eastern coast from Georgia to Canada. In the Chesapeake colonies of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, slavery was the predominant way of organizing labor. By 1790, nearly forty percent of the population in the British colonies were enslaved.
Tobacco was a major cash crop in the Chesapeake colonies. During the 1700s, many plantation owners were able to increase their fortunes by selling tobacco to Europeans and Africans. The vast majority of tobacco during the late 16th century was cultivated by slave labor. Slaves planted, harvested, cured and packaged tobacco in an extremely labor intensive process. You can learn more about the colonial cultivation methods of tobacco here. Between 1619 and 1775, generations of enslaved people labored in the American colonies to create wealth for their owners.
— Cori Sisler, Manager of Exhibitions and Collections
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program