On June 15, luminaries from aviation, entertainment and sports as well French Consulate and Chicago officials will gather at the DuSable Museum, the oldest African American Museum in the United States, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bessie Coleman earning her pilot’s license and defying the barriers raised to keep her out of the sky. The event, organized by AeroStar Avion Institute and hosted by DuSable Museum, is designed to raise funding for educational programming for youth from underserved communities to pursue aviation careers.
One hundred years ago, Bessie Coleman, born in Texas and raised on the South Side of Chicago, was smitten with flight but could not pursue her dream to become a pilot in the U.S. because of her race. No barrier was too great, however, and on June 15, 1921 she achieved her goal by earning a pilots license from the French Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the first African American and Native American pilot in the world to gain such certification.
“Bessie Coleman is relevant today,” said Tammera L. Holmes, Founder and CEO of The AeroStar Avion Institute. “A century ago, Bessie was shut out of aviation because she was Black, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Still today, most African Americans are not aware of the many opportunities for aviation careers and do not have access to pursue these opportunities. As of 2019, only 3% of commercial pilots are African American and less for Latinos. Bessie can still inspire the next generation to pursue their dream especially since the industry is now demanding more diversity as evidenced by United Airlines recent announcement on working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).”
The event coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre on Black Wall Street, illustrating the environment Bessie faced as she overcame her barriers. It also comes as the aviation and aerospace industries face acute workforce shortages with Chicago-based Boeing reporting a global industry need of 763,000 pilots and 739,000 aviation maintenance technicians by 2039. Without broadening recruitment beyond traditional white, male pipelines, these industries will not be able to meet its workforce needs. That is why AeroStar Avion Institute developed K-12 aviation education not only to expose youngsters in underserved communities to popular aviation careers like pilots and mechanics, but prepare them for the many STEM career opportunities in the industry including architects, engineers, computer scientists, graphic artists, entrepreneurs, tradesmen and even utility workers.
“If a child has an interest in STEM, there is a place for them in aviation and there is no better time to pursue those interests than now,” Holmes continued. “The entire aviation and aerospace industry is actively working on diversity, equity and inclusion as they search for the talent they need. But we still must prepare our children to meet the workforce needs of the future and that is what this celebration is all about – to raise money to provide funding to children from underserved communities to access aviation education and take their first step on a pathway to quality, high-paying aviation careers. Our goal is to educate and train 10,000 black and brown youth over the next 10 years, and we are using Bessie’s anniversary to inspire the next 100 years of diversity and inclusion in aviation.”
The event kicks off with a Youth AeroSTEM Expo introducing 50 to 100 youngsters to Chicago-area aviation and STEM organizations. It then launches into a reception, a video of Bessie Coleman, comments by the 21st Century Bessie Coleman, Kellee Edwards, Travel Channel TV host of “Mysterious Islands,” a licensed pilot, certified scuba diver and named “the most interesting women in the world” by Outside Magazine, as well as by 11 year-old acting sensation, Chase W. Dillon, starring in Amazon Prime’s hit series “Underground Railroad.” Capping the festivities will be the distribution of Bessie Coleman Awards to African Americans who have demonstrated an impact and aptitude for aviation, social justice and education.
“Partnering with The AeroStar Avion Institute is a perfect role for the DuSable Museum because our missions align and serve as a point of connection between underserved communities and the historical impact the African diaspora has on American industry and culture,” said Perri Irmer, DuSable Museum CEO. “For us, it is important to increase the diversity, equity and inclusion in this vital industry so our young people can not only learn to fly but can take our entire community with them on their journey.”
The celebration is coordinating events at museums around the country throughout the year, providing local communities with awareness and access to local aviation and STEM education programs. Also invited to celebrate Bessie’s Centennial are the National Air and Space Museum, Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Dayton’s National Museum of the US Air Force and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.