Often when we think of the “American” narrative about women in aviation, one of the first who comes to mind is Amelia Earhart. She was an aviator who, in the 1920s and ’30s, defied gender roles by advancing women’s place in history as explorers and pilots, particularly white women. Over the course of her life, Earhart was highly decorated for her many accomplishments. She was the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet, the first woman to solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the first person to fly from Hawaii to the United States mainland, and Earhart was recognized by the military for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
But alongside Earhart’s story is a lesser-known piece of American history... Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Indigenous woman to hold a pilot’s license. Unlike Earhart, Coleman had to navigate the seemingly insurmountable barriers of racism in order to make a career in aviation possible. When her military brother mocked her, quoted in the book Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator: “[Black] women ain’t never goin’ to fly, not like those women I saw in France,” Coleman took his words as a challenge. She learned French, crowdsourced funds and worked her way from a manicurist to a restaurant manager. Finally, when she had enough money, she made the trip across the ocean to France to attend flight school.
Coleman earned her license in June 1921 and, upon returning to the U.S., she shared her dream of opening a flight school of her own to train and empower Black pilots. That goal never materialized, but her historic accomplishment paved the way for a new generation of Black women aviators.
Today, only 2 percent of the aviation industry is made up of African Americans, and less than 1 percent are Black women, Bloomberg reports.
Emilia Tolbert, 24, is from historic Tuskegee, Alabama, and is looking to change that. Tolbert remembers visiting Moton Airfield, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained, ever since she was little.
“I wanted to fly,” she said in the documentary Red Horizon. “There is really no more explanation than that.”
While pursuing her master’s degree at Tuskegee University, her brother told her about the Red Tails Scholarship Foundation (RTSF). Established in 2015, the goal of Red Tail Flight Academy (RTFA) “is to train a minimum of 997 African American pilots [one more than the original Tuskegee Airmen] and 300 African American Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) technicians,” according to its
Tolbert’s path has been anything but traditional. While in flight school, she found out that she was pregnant with her son. When faced with having to quit, she told the Indy she quickly learned that, as a mom, you have to make sacrifices while fighting to keep your sense of self.
“There is no way that I could look Malcolm [her son] in the eyes and tell him ‘I didn’t become a pilot because I was a mom,’” she says, adding that her son has motivated her more. “I have a Black son — right now everyone looks at him like he is small and cute. One day he is going to grow up and be a Black man who is strong and powerful,” she says.
But, Tolbert continues, “the excuses are real. It’s not even that you are making something up. With a newborn, you are sleep-deprived.“
She says that after she had her baby, the encouragement and support of both her family and RTFA instructors motivated her to continue pursuing her dream. Tolbert is now a licensed private pilot pursuing her Instrument Rating qualification.
She says strong people deal with circumstances that push them to the limit. “I had to fight for my joy, peace, happiness and all my accolades for sure,” she says. “It’s a whole other experience to take a baby with you to flight school or a ground lesson.”
Editor’s note: This is the final column in a three-part series on the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails and other pioneers in African American aviation.