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Learn About Black History: Seven Lesser-Known Figures (page 2)

Learn About Black History: Seven Lesser-Known Figures

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Updated on Dec 22, 2010

Bessie Coleman – aviator

Bessie Coleman was the world’s first licensed black civil aviator. The outbreak of World War I lead to Coleman’s interest in aviation, and, noting the more liberal attitudes of Europeans to women of color, she traveled to France in 1921 to earn her international pilot’s license. After returning to the United States she became famous as an instructor and stunt flyer. Her dream was to open a flying school for African-Americans; tragically, Coleman died before this could happen. Her 1926 death during an air show practice stunned and saddened the public, and the grave of “Brave Bessie” is honored to this day with an annual flyover.

Cathay Williams – soldier

Cathay Williams, daughter of a slave woman and a free black, was the first documented African-American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army. After being liberated during the Civil War, she served as a laundress and cook in the Union Army. As life in the post-war 1860’s for a black woman was still fairly grim, she chose to enhance her prospects by posing as a man—William Cathay. Under her masculine pseudonym she enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry (following what must have been a very hasty physical examination) and went on to become America’s first female African-American Buffalo Soldier.

Oscar Micheaux – filmmaker

Micheaux, a pioneer filmmaker of the early to mid-20th century, was the first African-American to produce a full-length film. Born to a solidly middle class family in 1884, Micheaux worked as a railway porter, a coal miner and a rancher before turning to writing. In 1917 he wrote a book (the semi-autobiographical novel The Homesteader), and in 1919, the same year he formed his own motion picture company, he turned this book into a film. This was followed up by over 40 feature-length films, an output that spanned a three-decade career in writing, producing and directing. The Producers Guild of America has called him “the most prolific black—if not most prolific independent—filmmaker in American cinema.”

These men and women paved the way for today’s African-American luminaries: before there was Dr. Mae Jemison aboard the space shuttle as the first black female astronaut, there was Bessie Coleman in her biplane. Spike Lee cites Oscar Micheaux as an inspiration. Let their stories inspire you to accomplish what they did: success in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds.

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