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February 12, 2008

Bessie Coleman helped black women soar


The “friendly skies” of aviation have not always been that friendly to women pilots.  Currently there are about 4,000 women airline pilots out of the nearly 80,000 male airline pilots.  The first female airline pilot was Helen Richey, who was hired by Central Airlines in 1934.  After only 10 months on the job, she resigned because the all-male pilots union would not allow her to join.  Broke and jobless, she committed suicide in 1947.  (By the way, United Airlines currently has the most female pilots.)

Although history’s flight toward more women pilots has been turbulent, there is one woman who shares a lot of responsibility for launching women into the air in the first place.  Bessie Coleman (pictured), 1892-1926 — also known as “Queen Bess” — was the first African American woman airline pilot, as well as the first American woman to receive an international pilot’s license. Too often, Amelia Earhart is seen as the pioneer woman aviator. Hopefully that will change.  Too poor to stay in college, Bessie took a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop in Chicago, where she heard about the adventures of pilots returning from World War I.  It was there that she also met two powerful black businessmen, Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most influential black newspapers, and real estate developer Jesse Binga. 

These two men encouraged Bessie to take up aviation, even though they knew she had to move to France to learn because no American flight schools would accept her as both black and a woman.  After earning her pilot’s license and international pilot's license, she returned to the U.S.

Photo of Bessie Coleman, public domain


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Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, not only is it a pleasure to read and learn from your writings, it is just as exciting to think you may read this simple reply. Sir, it is an honor! I am a long time fan, my father and uncles always held you in high regards from your time at U.C.L.A. throughtout your pro career. I was told at a young age that Kareem is much deeper than the big guy you see on the court. At last the opportunity for a glimpse within, I thank you.
Black History is our History!

Glenna Matthews

Dear Kareem:

As one who has taught American history at the college level, I deeply admire what you are doing to use your very well-deserved fame to write about Black pioneers. I was a fan from your freshman year at UCLA on--I still remember most of your teammates such as Lynn Shackelford, Kenny Heitz, and Lucius Allen--and I'm an even bigger fan now!


Great and very interesting article Kareem. I only wish everyone were able to reach their full potential and live their dreams without so many man made obstacles in the world, both past and present.

On a side note, I read somewhere that you suffer from migraines. I myself suffered from sever migraines growing up, and a medicine called Maxalt changed my life. It literally stops them withing 20 minutes of taking one, you might want to check it out. Good luck.



Thanks for this blog. I am very much looking forward to reading this and learning. I've always been a big fan and admired the way you've always presented yourself with class. You are a true American hero.



It is indeed an honor and privelege to be able to address you across the cyberworld and exchange some thoughts. I have been a follower of your basketball career since your days at Power Memorial and reveled in your Laker career. Thank you for your many contributions to American society, both in the world of sports and in the furthering of knowledge regarding African-American history.

Casey W

Kareem nice piece. I think that your point about Amelia Earhart getting too much credit is justified. Hopefully this piece will serve as a minor step in the progress to have Bessie Coleman properly recognized as the true pioneer that she was.
Obama 08

tha show


excellent blog: some history, some politics and some basketball.

true balance. i will be checking in again to read your next contributions...

i admire how you always give back. you remain a person that we should all look up to.



Finally an intelligent and knowledgeable person expressing his opinions and insights through a blog. Yes we definitely can! ! !


I have always admired you for your intelligence, basketball skills and overall presence. I've seen you about town from the time I was a freshman at UCLA to when you were on the court with the Lakers. But I have never admired you as much as I do now as I read your books and now your blog...I am loving the fact that the greatest basketball player is also developing into one of the best historians of our race and time.

Keep on writing and keep working with Bynum....we need you in both of these areas....and look forward to your future endeavors,

Jon K.


What is your impression about the present state of the evolution of African-American culture? Why do you feel that in lower class, inner-city African American culture there has been such a huge spike in fatherlessness over the past decade and a half?

Walter Ansonia

Dear Mr. Abdul-Jabbar:

Sometime ago, I read your book "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement." If I recall correctly, there is some evidence that explorers from sub-Saharan Africa may have traveled to Brazil and the Caribbean prior to Columbus. How does the research stand on this matter?

Also, has anyone tried to find the remains of Alex Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte? A number of year's ago there was an article in the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star in which the author speculated that Kunta Kinte was buried somewhere near the Ma and Ta Rivers in Spotsylvania County, VA.

Varied stories about African and African-American history would be interesting to see, such as about the dynamics of the Yoruba kingdoms, technology sub-Saharan Africans had developed that was incorporated into American and other societies, and inventions made by the U.S. slave population.

bill o'connor

Kareem -- When you were in 8th grade, St. Judes, I was on Power's Varsity. Coach Donahue would drive Bobby Zuppe, Billy Lunsford and myself home after practice each afternoon (we lived in St. John's, Kingsbridge). I remember one day, while driving home, coach told us he heard about "a kid from St. Jude's......" I remember your coming to our gym watching us practice. Next year, your freshman year at Power was my senior year. I remember playing preseason games with you (remember the play when a guard would pick your guy in the low post and you would roll across the lane) . Unfortunately for me, just as the regular season started, Coach Donahue cut me saying unless I was a starter, or No 6 or 7, he didn't want a senor; he wanted soph or junior. In closing, one day in your freshman year, after a game at All Hallows coach Donahue told my dad and me that you might become "the best ever." Life has been good to me; married three great sons; retired in Morganton, nc. I'm so proud of all you've done in life. Bill O'Connor

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of www.iconomy.com unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

Come meet Kareem at the NBA Store on 5th Avenue: Friday, May 16th, from 3:15pm - 4:15pm.

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